Vietnam Reclaiming Land on Four Islands in South China Sea

Vietnam has increased the number of outposts on the Spratly Islands since the beginning of the year, creating almost as much territory as it had in the past two years combined, putting the Southeast Asian nation on track for a record number of islands built in 2024.

The artificial islands, or features, are constructed by dredging sand on reefs and then encasing them in concrete, resulting in a permanent structure.

Vietnam has created around 692 acres of land, comprised of 10 features, since November 2023. By comparison, Vietnam built around 404 new acres in the first 11 months of 2023 and 342 in 2022. The total land created by Vietnam totals 2,360 acres, or around half of China’s 4,650 acres.

Three years ago, Vietnam’s total dredging and landfill efforts yielded around 329 acres, a fraction of the number claimed by China.

The Spratly Islands

The Spratly Islands are a group of 100 islets, shoals, reefs, and sandbanks in the South China Sea. The islands have several nations claiming the islands, including China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia. The disputes between territories make bilateral relations and discussions difficult.

Spratly Islands on a map. Source: Google Earth

The total area of the Spratly Islands is spread out over an area of around 164,000 square miles (425,000 square km), although only 1.2 miles (2 km) of which is naturally occurring land. The largest naturally occurring island in the Spratly Islands is Itu Aba, which Taiwan currently governs, although China, Vietnam, and the Philippines claim it.

Most of the islands are uninhabited, with the only people present being military personnel stationed in the Spratly Islands. A large portion of the areas within the islands are underwater.

The Structures Built

Facilities such as airports, docks, and outposts are built on the above-sea and larger territories in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam’s largest outpost is Barque Canada Reef, and it has recently almost doubled from 238 acres to 412 acres in the last six months. Vietnam has occupied it since 1988, although China, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Malaysia all have claims to the reef.

Other structures include coastal defense-style pillboxes, helipads, and trenches.

Barque Canada Reef is the 4th largest feature in the Spratly Islands. Vietnam has claims to Namyit Island, the 5th largest feature, at around 194 acres, Pearson Reef, the 6th largest at around 170 acres, Discovery Great Reef at 147 acres; and Sand Cay at 94 acres, the 10th largest. All four features have seen significant expansion in recent times, with Namyit growing 41 acres, Discovery Great Reef expanding 102 acres, Pearson Reef adding 37 acres, and 52 acres at South Reef, another Vietnamese-owned feature.

Barque Canada Reef on September 9th, 2023, showing expansion. Source: Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command

Vietnam’s only runway in the Spratly Islands is 4265 feet (1,300 meters) on Spratly Island. The Barque Canada Reef will likely be able to host a 9,842-foot (3,000-meter) runway, suitable for almost all aircraft in the Vietnamese People’s Air Force, including the Su-22, 27, and 30 fighter aircraft, or the larger CASA C-295 or CASA C-212 cargo aircraft.

Analysis

Despite being mostly uninhabited, the importance of the Spratly Islands to neighboring countries is paramount for not only civilian reasons but also military ones. By artificially adding new areas, Vietnam is increasing its presence on the islands it claims.

Vietnam adding to the features it owns would also increase its presence in the surrounding area, adding to its defense capabilities and monitoring activities in nearby waters. This could also anger China, as they could view it as an intrusion on Chinese claims in the Spratly Islands, which could serve as a basis for any non-threatening actions against Vietnam, such as intrusive patrols or sending a larger body of Chinese fishermen to disrupt activities.

Vietnam may also exploit the natural resources of the islands it occupies for civilian purposes or trade. Natural gas and oil are essential in the modern world, as are copper, cobalt, tin, and nickel. These minerals have many applications, such as technology, machinery, medicine, electronics, and more essential global markets. These resources could also have defense applications.

Fishing is a very prominent resource in the Spratly Islands. Overfishing is a problem in the South China Sea, and adding more territory in the Spratly Islands could temporarily solve this issue as it could allow Vietnam to catch more fish in the waters surrounding the features. Fish stocks within local Vietnamese waters have gone down in recent times due to overfishing.

Evan Berridge
Evan Berridge
Evan is an analyst specializing in Indo-Pacific affairs and has over 5 years of experience as a freelance writer.

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