Vietnam reclaiming land in South China Sea

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HANOI: Vietnam has carried out significant land reclamations at two sites in disputed South China Sea waters, recent satellite pictures show, but analysts say the scale of the work is dwarfed by that of China.

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The images, taken late last month by DigitalGlobe and shown on the website of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), show land expansions at Sand Cay and West London Reef, both part of the Spratly Islands.

“Between August 2011 and February 2015, significant upgrades were made to [Sand Cay],” CSIS said, noting that the island’s land mass had expanded from 41,690 to 62,970 square meters.

Vietnam also appears to have added “defensive structures,” including trenches and gun emplacements, it added.

At West Reef — part of the London Reefs group of western Spratly Islands — some 65,000 meters of land have been reclaimed with new structures, including a harbor, being added, CSIS said.

The work appears to have begun in August 2012, it added, long before Beijing launched a flurry of reclamation projects last year.

The Spratlys are considered a potential Asian flashpoint, and the United States and claimant nations have expressed alarm as China has embarked on massive and speedy reclamation activities.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea), locking it into disputes with several Southeast Asian neighbors.

Its claims overlap those of Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

China has undertaken major reclamation works on seven Spratly features in the last year.

“Chinese activity is clearly on an entirely different scale,” said Vietnam expert Jonathan London of Hong Kong’s City University.

“Vietnam appears to be now trying to strengthen its position with added urgency,” London added.

“Not only is there a sort of regional arms race but a rush to claim maritime areas, rock features and things of this nature,” in disputed waters in the region that are a key global trading route, he saidd.

Some $5 trillion of sea-borne trade passes through the area each year.

China’s island-building in the Spratlys has been seen as part of an attempt to assert its territorial claims by establishing physical facts in the water.

Fiery Cross, which the Philippines calls as Kagitingan Reef in the Spratlys, was little more than a reef until last year when China began reclamation work.

It now has a partly-finished airstrip with a 3.1-kilometer runway.

China also appears to be undertaking work at a feature known as Mischief Reef, just 100 kilometers from the southwestern Philippine island of Palawan.

Vietnam has an airstrip on the largest Spratly Island it controls, which was renovated in 2000 and can accommodate helicopters or small planes.

Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new satellite images.

MALACAÑANG on Friday said the government is looking at other tracks in trying to resolve the territorial disputes with China besides arbitration but noted that a military solution to the problem or even violence “is not an option.”

In a news briefing, its deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said she believes that the memorial the government filed before the International Tribunal on the Laws of the Sea (Itlos) will prosper.

“We believe that the tracks that we have taken will continue to serve us well, and we will continue to pursue those tracks,” Valte added.

“I’m interested to know what other tracks may be available, or perhaps that they are suggesting, because at this point we all know that violence is not an option as a response to this particular dispute,” she said.

The official was asked to react to a statement made by National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia during a recent Senate hearing that the disputes in the South China Sea have overtaken all security concerns.

AFP AND JOEL M. SY EGCO

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