Vietnam is extending a runway on an island it claims in the South China Sea in apparent response to China’s building of military facilities on artificial islands in the region, according to a US think tank.
Satellite images taken this month showed Vietnam had lengthened its runway on Spratly Island from less than 760 metres to more than 1 kilometre, Washington’s Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported.
AMTI, a project of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said continued reclamation work would likely mean the runway was extended to more than 1.2 km.
It said the upgraded runway would be able to accommodate maritime surveillance aircraft and transport planes, as well as combat aircraft.
The report said Vietnam had added about 23 hectares of land to Spratly Island in recent years, but its reclamation work remained modest by Chinese standards.
China has built military-length runways on three artificial islands it has built up in the South China Sea since 2013.
The United States, which has criticised China’s reclamation work in the South China Sea and stepped up defence cooperation with Vietnam in response, said it was aware of the reports that Hanoi had upgraded some of its facilities on outposts in the Spratly Islands.
“We encourage all claimants to take steps to lower tensions and peacefully resolve differences,” Anna Richey-Allen, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, said.
Reuters recently reported that Vietnam had discreetly fortified several of its islands in the disputed South China Sea with mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China’s runways and military installations across the vital trade route.
Military analysts said the deployment of the launchers was the most significant defensive move Vietnam has made on its holdings in the South China Sea in decades and it underscored Hanoi’s concerns about China’s assertive pursuit of territorial claims in the disputed region.
Vietnam, China, Malaysia have eyes on the prize
Explore the conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea
|Rich in resources and traversed by a quarter of global shipping, the South China Sea is the stage for several territorial disputes that threaten to escalate tensions in the region.
At the heart of these disputes are a series of barren islands in two groups – the Spratly Islands, off the coast of the Philippines, and the Paracel Islands, off the coasts of Vietnam and China.
|Both chains are essentially uninhabitable, but are claimed by no fewer than seven countries, eager to gain control of the vast oil and gas fields below them, as well as some of the region’s best fishing grounds.
Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made claims to part of the Spratlys based on the internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends 200 hundred nautical miles from a country’s coastline.
|Based on the EEZ, the Philippines has the strongest claim on the Spratlys and their resources, with its EEZ covering much of the area.
However the lure of resources, and prospect of exerting greater control over shipping in the region, means that greater powers are contesting the Philippines’ claims.
|China has made extensive sovereignty claims on both the Spratlys and the Paracels to the north, based largely on historic claims outlined in a map from the middle part of the 20th Century known as the ‘Nine Dash Map’.
Taiwan also makes claims based on the same map, as it was created by the nationalist Kuomintang government, which fled to Taiwan after the communists seized power in China.
|Vietnam also claims the Spratlys and the Paracels as sovereign territory, extending Vietnam’s EEZ across much of the region and bringing it into direct conflict with China.
There have been deadly protests in Vietnam over China’s decision to build an oil rig off the Paracels.
One Chinese worker in Vietnam was killed and a dozen injured in riots targeting Chinese and Taiwanese owned factories, prompting 3,000 Chinese nationals to flee the country.
|EEZ can only be imposed based on boundaries of inhabitable land, and this has prompted all the countries making claims on the region to station personnel, and in some cases build military bases out of the water, to bolster their claim.
Building and protecting these structures has resulted in a series of stand-offs between countries in the region, each with the potential to escalate.
China has been leading the charge with these installations, and has deployed vessels to the region to protect their interests.
Chinese coast guard vessels have used a water cannon on Vietnamese vessels, as well as blockading an island where the Philippines has deployed military personnel.