Vietnam Expands Outposts in Disputed South China Sea, Considers Arms Deals with U.S. Firms

Buildings and structures are seen on the artificial island built by China in Gaven Reefs o
Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

Vietnam is reportedly stepping up its island reclamation projects in contested South China Sea waters and considering bids for helicopters and drones from U.S. defense manufacturers, signs that Hanoi might be getting serious about pressing its territorial claims against China.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Thursday quoted a study by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) that found Vietnam created about 170 hectares of new land in the disputed Spratly Islands in 2022, mostly by expanding existing reefs and islets with dredging and landfills.

Vietnam has significantly expanded the surface area of four Spratly islands – Namyit Island, Pearson Reef, Sand Cay, and Tennent Reef – and initiated land reclamation work at five others, according to the study. Namyit Island and Pearson Reef are now large enough to support ports for large ships, and both are now larger than the feature that gives the region its name, 39-hectare Spratly Island.

Of the other five features Vietnam is trying to enhance, Barque Canada Reef has grown by 23 hectares and may soon be capable of supporting substantial construction.

This represents a significant acceleration of Vietnam’s island reclamation work, but it pales in comparison to the 1,295 hectares colonized by China in the region during its island-building binge from 2013 to 2016. 

China has also extensively militarized its reclaimed and enhanced islands, fortifying them with surface and air missiles, electronic jamming equipment, and military airstrips. China’s South China Sea islets are often compared to aircraft carriers that do not move, and the Chinese are increasingly belligerent about using them to interfere with freedom of navigation and press territorial claims across the entire region.

The UK Guardian noted Vietnam’s reclamation activities generally employ clamshell dredgers to “scoop up sections of shallow reef and deposit the sediment for landfill,” which is a “less destructive process” than China’s dredging.

“Vietnam’s dredging and landfill activities in 2022 are substantial and signal an intent to significantly fortify its occupied features in the Spratlys,” the AMTI/CSIS report concluded. “Whether and to what degree China and other claimants react will bear watching.”

Those other claimants include Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia, most of whom share Vietnam’s apprehension about China’s territorial aggression, but do not necessarily agree with Vietnam about which island properly belongs to which country.

Reuters reported on Thursday that U.S. defense firms Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Textron are in talks with the Vietnamese government to supply helicopters and drones. Vietnam has long obtained most of its military hardware from Russia, but Russian supplies are tight because of the war in Ukraine.

According to Reuters, the four U.S. companies met with Vietnamese officials on the sidelines of the first large-scale arms fair Vietnam has held. A source who attended the meetings described them as “promising” and said the equipment discussed was “non-lethal” surveillance gear.

Another source said Vietnam previously discussed the possibility of buying armed drones and aircraft with American suppliers. None of the four companies responded to requests for comment, and neither did the Vietnamese defense and foreign ministries, or the U.S. embassy in Hanoi.

“Sources and analysts said Vietnam is also considering deals with suppliers from Israel, India, and European and Northeast Asian countries. In the last decade, Israel has been the second-biggest seller of weapons to Vietnam after Russia,” Reuters noted.

Vietnam has been attempting to design an indigenously-produced long-range armed drone for several years – evidently without satisfactory results, if the interest of the Vietnamese People’s Army in obtaining foreign-made unmanned aerial vehicles is genuine. Drones would be ideal platforms for surveillance and anti-ship operations from the small islets Vietnam has built up in the Spratlys.


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