How Vietnam is growing bigger by building islands in South China Sea

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Vietnam’s aggressive land reclamation and dredging activities in the South China Sea are setting the stage for a record year of island-building. This surge in activity has significantly expanded Vietnam’s territorial claims in one of the world’s most contested waterways.
According to US researchers and various think tanks, Vietnam’s recent efforts have nearly matched the total land created over the previous two years combined. Since November 2023, Vietnam has added 692 new acres (280 hectares) of land across 10 features in the Spratly Islands, commented the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

This brings the total land reclaimed by Vietnam to approximately 2,360 acres, a significant increase from the 329 acres recorded three years ago. The rapid expansion is intended to solidify Vietnam’s presence in the region, which has seen overlapping claims from China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, apart from Vietnam.
“Vietnam is on pace for a record year of island building in 2024,” the AMTI report stated. This increase in land reclamation is a strategic move to enhance Vietnam’s capabilities and assert its territorial claims amidst rising tensions in the South China Sea.

How has military infrastructure increased?

Vietnam’s largest outpost, Barque Canada Reef, has nearly doubled in size over the past six months, growing from 238 to 412 acres. The feature now measures 4,318 meters in length, making it capable of hosting a 3,000-meter runway, similar to those found on China’s largest outposts—Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reefs.

Currently, Vietnam operates a 1,300-meter runway on Spratly Island, suitable for most military aircraft, but a longer runway would support larger military transport, surveillance, and bomber aircraft.

Other significant developments include the creation of 102 acres of new land at Discovery Great Reef, 52 acres at South Reef, 41 acres at Namyit Island, and 37 acres at Pearson Reef. These expansions are part of a broader strategy to enhance Vietnam’s military and logistical capabilities in the region.

“With an enormous length of 14,173 feet, Barque Canada Reef has the potential to have a 9,842-foot runway like China’s three major artificial islands,” the report highlighted. This development would mark a significant escalation in Vietnam’s military infrastructure in the South China Sea.

How has China fared?

The South China Sea is a crucial maritime corridor through which more than $3 trillion of trade passes each year. The overlapping claims have made it a flashpoint for regional tensions. China, which has been building islands in the South China Sea since 2013, claims sovereignty over vast swathes of the sea, including areas where Vietnam is expanding its islands.

China’s extensive land reclamation efforts between 2013 and 2015 resulted in the creation of 4,650 acres of new land. Despite announcing a halt to reclamation work in 2015, China has continued to build infrastructure, including military-grade airstrips and harbours. Vietnam’s recent activities, though not as extensive as China’s, represent a significant increase in its efforts to assert control over the disputed areas.

“China has more holdings in the region than any other country, but Vietnam is now in second place,” noted the AMTI report. The Barque Canada Reef, controlled by Hanoi, could now host a runway sufficient for military transport planes or bombers, further intensifying the military buildup in the area.

What may be the future implications?

The rapid expansion of artificial islands by Vietnam has raised concerns about the potential for conflict in the region. The Grandview Institution, a Beijing-based think tank, recently warned that Vietnam’s increasing activities could “complicate and escalate” the situation in the South China Sea.

Recent months have seen several clashes involving Philippine and Chinese vessels , including collisions and the use of water cannons by China. These incidents highlight the fragile nature of the peace in the region and the risks associated with the militarisation of these disputed territories.

“Vietnam has significantly accelerated the expansion of its outposts in the Spratly Islands over the last six months,” the AMTI report stated. This acceleration is not only a testament to Vietnam’s strategic ambitions but also a clear indicator of the heightened competition and potential for conflict in one of the world’s most critical maritime regions.

Vietnam’s aggressive expansion, marked by significant military infrastructure developments, highlights the escalating tensions and the strategic importance of this contested waterway.

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