Vietnam construction continues at 3 South China Sea features, imagery shows

Vietnam has 49 or 51 outposts in the South China Sea spread across 27 features, says a U.S. think tank.
2021.11.15
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Vietnam construction continues at 3  South China Sea features, imagery shows Satellite imagery on Nov. 2 of Sand Cay, a Vietnamese-held feature in the Spratlys, shows construction underway, probably of a new ship docking area. The construction was not visible in the image from Oct. 19.
Imagery: Planet Labs Inc. Analysis: RFA

Vietnam is carrying out construction on three islands in the South China Sea at the same time, satellite imagery shows.

Images from Planet Labs analyzed by RFA show works are being conducted on Pearson Reef, Namyit Island and Sand Cay, all in the disputed Spratly Islands.

RFA was the first media outlet to report the new development on Pearson Reef on Oct. 20. Since then, more works have been carried out there to build what appears to be a large two-section marina or harbor.

Pearson has already been expanded by about six acres but all of that previous landfill was done prior to 2014, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI).

Similarly, on Namyit and Sand Cay - other features under Vietnam’s control - authorities seem to be building ship docks to improve access and provide shelter to boats.

Satellite imagery from Nov. 14 shows the construction of a marina or harbor taking place on the left side of Pearson Reef, the latest indication of building at the Vietnamese-held feature, also pictured on Nov. 1. Imagery: Planet Labs Inc. Analysis: RFA
Satellite imagery from Nov. 14 shows the construction of a marina or harbor taking place on the left side of Pearson Reef, the latest indication of building at the Vietnamese-held feature, also pictured on Nov. 1. Imagery: Planet Labs Inc. Analysis: RFA
Vietnamese analysts said their country carries out work to prevent erosion and landslides to protect but not to expand or change the island features under its control.

Under a new government strategy, Vietnam is seeking to civilianize islands in the South China Sea in order to promote economic development and to better protect the country’s sovereignty, Lt. Col. Luu Van Nhiem, a senior official at the Naval squadron 11, First Regional Coast Guard, recently told domestic media.

Vietnam has 49 or 51 outposts in the South China Sea spread across 27 features including 10 islets, according to AMTI. Since 2014 Vietnam “has modestly expanded” many of the features it occupies in the South China Sea, it said. At least four of the features have harbor facilities for civilian boats to access for resupply or shelter from bad weather.

China, which claims most of the South China Sea for itself, has been criticizing other countries, especially Vietnam, for construction efforts on islands in the region.

The South China Sea Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank, alleged that an area of more than 17,000 square meters (4.2 acres) has been reclaimed on the western tip of the Namyit Island which had not seen discernible reclamation work up to now. 

Satellite images of Namyit Island, a Vietnamese-held feature in the Spratlys, taken two weeks apart on Nov. 15 and Oct. 30, shows continuing construction underway at its western tip and north side. Imagery: Planet Labs Inc. Analysis: RFAAccording to AMTI, by 2016, Vietnam had created just over 120 acres of land in the South China Sea compared to 3,200 acres created by China.

Yet while the scale is different “the principles of Vietnam’s and China’s as well as the Philippines’ reclamation works on their islands are the same,” argues Mark Valencia, a scholar at the Chinese National Institute for South China Sea Studies.

In his opinion, “China and all the other claimants are undertaking actions that increase tension.”

“There are no angels in the South China Sea,” Valencia said.

Since 2014, China has also installed military infrastructure in the Spratly and Paracel islands, including radar facilities, airstrips and surface-to-air and anti-ship cruise missile systems, AMTI reported.

Vietnam has only one air strip on the Spratly island that it has occupied since the beginning of the 20th century.

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