Vietnam speeds land reclamation in South China Sea

Developments include new harbors, helipads and radar domes but no military installations.
By RFA Staff
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Namyit Island [left image, Dec. 22, 2019] in the South China Sea’s Spratly Archipelago has been significantly expanded in the past year, as seen on April 18, 2023 [right image]. Credit: Planet Labs photos 

Vietnam continues accelerating its land reclamation in the South China Sea but an investigation by Radio Free Asia has found no indication of the militarization of any outpost.

Satellite images obtained via Planet Labs, a U.S. Earth imaging company, show that reclamation works have been carried out at many of the 27 maritime features under Vietnam’s control in the Spratly archipelago.

New harbors that could serve as shelters for ships have been developed at five more features including Tennent Reef, Pearson Reef, Namyit Island, Barque Canada Reef and Sand Cay, bringing the number of such facilities to at least nine.

The Spratly archipelago, with hundreds of atolls and reefs, is located in an area frequently hit by typhoons and the Vietnamese government has said it is committed to protecting fishermen at sea.

Some of the features have been developed further since the last report in December 2022 on Vietnam’s island expansion by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Two small features, Sand Cay and Barque Canada Reef, have witnessed a great transformation since the end of last year.

The land area on Barque Canada Reef has increased from 58 acres (24 hectares) in AMTI report to the current 76 acres (31 hectares), according to RFA’s research.  

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Tennent Reef until 2021 only hosted a couple of steel structures. Credit: RFA/Planet Labs

Another feature, Tennent Reef, which until 2021 still hosted only a couple of steel structures, now has been developed into an islet with buildings, a harbor and a pier. 

AMTI estimated that at the end of 2022, there were 64 acres (26 hectares) of artificial land at Tennent Reef. 

A mid-sized feature, the Namyit Island, has expanded significantly to 117 acres (47 hectares), with a port that can accommodate larger ships including supply vessels.

No militarization

The island, listed as a natural marine reserve by the Vietnamese government, boasts a sovereignty monument installed in 1956, a lighthouse, a clinic and a Buddhist Temple. 

A close look at images of Namyit obtained from Planet Labs reveals a number of buildings, two radar domes and a helipad at the eastern edge of the island but no obvious military installations or facilities.

Greg Poling, AMTI’s director, said Vietnam has built helipads on most of its features in recent years to facilitate resupply. 

Until now there’s only one small airport equipped with a 1,200-meter runway on the Spratly Island that Hanoi has controlled since 1975.

Reuters news agency in 2016 reported that Vietnam moved a number of mobile rocket launchers to five of its islands in the South China Sea. 

“The launchers have been hidden from aerial surveillance and they have yet to be armed, but could be made operational with rocket artillery rounds within two or three days,” the report said.

The Vietnamese government denied the information. 

RFA also examined the latest photos of Vietnam’s other reclaimed islands and has not found any evidence to back Reuters’ claims.

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Sand Cay as of April 18, 2023. Credit: Planet Labs  

AMTI’s December report said Vietnam created roughly 420 acres (170 hectares) of new land in 2022 alone, bringing its total in the last ten years to 540 acres (219 hectares).

It is still a fraction of China’s reclaimed 3,200 acres [1,295 hectares].

Six parties – Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – hold conflicting claims over the South China Sea but only China, the Philippines and Vietnam are known to have been reclaiming land for further construction on their occupied islands and reefs. 

Beijing is believed to have finished the construction and militarization of three of its artificial islands – Subi, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef – all within the Spratly archipelago.


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