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China and Vietnam Pick Up Island-Building Activity in S. China Sea

Barque Canada Reef
Barque Canada Reef; the dredged channel and Vietnamese outpost are just visible at center (Sentinel-2)

Published Dec 20, 2022 7:10 PM by The Maritime Executive

Land-claim activity is heating up in the Spratly Islands, the chain of reefs and atolls in the South China Sea that are claimed by six different nations. China and Vietnam have both reportedly resumed island-building operations, and the Philippine and U.S. governments claim that Chinese vessels are once again swarming at contested land features - this time at Iroquois Reef and Sabina Shoal. 

The array of claimed activity covers a wide swath of the Spratly chain. China is carrying out a gradual, covert land-reclamation operation using maritime militia vessels, U.S. officials told Bloomberg this week. At four different reef sites in the Spratlys, these small-scale reclamation works have expanded the size of existing sandbars and shoals by a factor of 10, turning formations that used to cover and uncover with the tide into areas that are permanently above water. 

The alleged reclamation sites are closely spaced in a north-south line, and they include Eldad Reef, a land feature at Tizard Bank; Lankiam Cay, 20 nm north of Tizard Bank; Sandy Cay, 50 nm north of Tizard Bank; and Whitsun Reef, a hotly-contested location about 20 nm to the south of Tizard Bank. 

U.S. officials believe that they represent yet another attempt by China to shift the status quo by building new ground. China has firmly denied the claims. 

Meanwhile, Chinese vessels have been swarming at Iroquis Reef (part of Reed Bank) and at Sabina Shoal, according to the Philippine government. Chinese vessels previously clustered at Iroquois last year, after they were chased away from Union Bank and Whitsun Reef, according to satellite imagery analysis performed by the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI). 

In a statement Monday, the U.S. State Department backed up the Philippine claims, calling the Chinese vessel activity a threat to the livelihoods of Philippine fishermen and "evidence of continuing disregard for other South China Sea claimants and states lawfully operating in the region."

China quickly pushed back on these complaints, with the Chinese embassy in Manila issued a statement denouncing these "unfounded accusations" as an American attempt to "stir up troubles." 

Competing island-building

Vietnam has been actively involved in an island-building campaign of its own. While it is dwarfed by China's 3,000-plus-acre scope of work in the Spratlys, the Vietnamese endeavor is by no means small. According to AMTI, Vietnam has added about 420 acres of new land on and around its existing holdings in the second half of this year alone. For perspective, this is more than three times the amount of land reclamation that Vietnam has carried out in the past decade. 

The landfill activity includes expanded reclamation at four existing Vietnamese-occupied islands, plus new dredging and reclamation at five sites that previously hosted only minor outlying stations. 

The growing new Vietnamese sites include Barque Canada Reef, Discovery Great Reef, Ladd Reef, Cornwallis South Reef and Alison Reef. Discovery Great Reef is located just to the east of Union Banks, an area of regular confrontation between claimants.

"Vietnam’s dredging and landfill activities in 2022 are substantial and signal an intent to significantly fortify its occupied features in the Spratlys. These expansions are ongoing and what infrastructure the expanded outposts will host remains to be seen," wrote AMTI in an assessment.