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Vietnam Speeds Up its Land-Reclamation Work in the Spratly Islands

Barque Canada Reef in the Spratly Islands, before large-scale Vietnamese land reclamation
Barque Canada Reef in the Spratly Islands, before large-scale Vietnamese land reclamation (Sentinel 2)

Published Jun 13, 2024 10:27 PM by The Maritime Executive

Vietnam has dramatically accelerated its effort to build island bases atop reefs in the Spratly Islands, where it maintains a string of outposts to stake out its maritime claims. 

According to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), Vietnam's reef-to-island dredging program added nearly 700 acres of reclaimed land in the Spratlys over the past six months. By way of comparison, Vietnam only reclaimed about 400 acres last year, and about 340 acrew in 2022. This brings Vietnam's total dredging and landfill activity to more than 2,300 acres across the Spratly Islands, or about half the amount of new land that China has created over the past decade. 

China's bases are by far the largest in the archipelago, topped by the 1,500-acre expanse of Mischief Reef. But two of Vietnam's biggest outposts now rank in the top five. It has nearly doubled its territory at Barque Canada Reef to about 400 acres, and the feature is now large enough to host a strategic military runway (if Vietnam should choose to build one). China currently has three bomber-capable runways in the Spratly Islands, one each at Mischief, Subi and Fiery Cross Reefs. 

Underlying the rapid expansion is a technological change. According to AMTI, satellite imaging shows that Vietnam has begun using cutter suction dredges to excavate sand and coral, in addition to the more time-consuming clamshell method. The rapid progress at Barque Canada Reef appears to be powered by cutter suction dredges. 

Like most features in the Spratly Islands, Vietnam's largest outposts are contested by neighboring nations, including Taiwan, the Philippines, China and Malaysia. The most significant contest for dominance in the area is between China and the Philippines, and while Manila also lays claim to Vietnamese-occupied features, its reaction to Vietnam's accelerated reclamation program has been muted. 

"Vietnam does not initiate illegal, coercive, aggressive, and deceptive actions against us, unlike China," explained Philippine Navy Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad in an interview. 

Both sides have misgivings about China's intentions in maritime affairs. China's coast guard and maritime militia routinely harass and damage Philippine vessels near Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal, and China has repeatedly infringed on Vietnam's exclusive economic zone. 

"Vietnam focuses on minding their own affairs," added Philippine Coast Guard spokesman Jay Tarriela in comments to local media. "They do not engage in harassing our fishermen or illegally deploying coast guard vessels and maritime militia in the waters surrounding our occupied maritime features."