WASHINGTON — Vietnam has made more improvements on parts of contested islands in the South China Sea, in what has been a stealth-like counter to China’s militarization of the region, a report released Wednesday says.
“Vietnam continues to quietly upgrade its facilities in the Spratly Islands, though apparently without facing the same reaction from China’s maritime militia forces as the Philippines recently has,” the report said.
“It seems that regardless of external factors, whether amid negotiations and relative calm or tensions and threats of violence, Hanoi is committed to a steady but modest expansion of its capabilities in and around the Spratly Islands,” the report said.
The report, called “Slow and Steady: Vietnam’s Spratly Upgrades,” was compiled by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) through its Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.
It was completed Monday and publicly released today.
China has declared ownership of all the Spratly Islands, despite claims by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected China’s claim to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea and its islands.
Beijing makes similar claims of the Paracel Islands, also claimed by others. It also claims islands in the East China Sea long claimed by Japan.
China has used military force to seize islands in the South China Sea in the past. In January 1974, the Battle of the Paracel Islands took place between the naval forces of China and South Vietnam, in which the South Vietnamese navy failed to expel the Chinese navy from an island claimed by Saigon.
CSIS said it appears Vietnam is being careful in which islands it is making improvements, selecting those not claimed by any other nation other than China or Taiwan — with particular caution to avoid islands claimed by the Philippines.
“Vietnam has not attempted to engage in the same large-scale militarization of its features as China; there is no sign of facilities built to house attack aircraft, for instance,” the report said.
“Instead, Hanoi’s upgrades seem geared toward expanding its ability to monitor and patrol contested waters and, especially in the case of its pillbox and DK1 platforms, improve living conditions and ensure it can resupply by air if necessary,” it said.
DK1 is shorthand for “economic, scientific, and technological service stations,” or Dịch vụ-Khoa in Vietnamese.
The Pentagon, often joined by other nations, sends ships through the South China Sea on freedom-of-navigation sailings, despite China’s claims. Those sailings, along with similar air sorties, raise the ire of Beijing.
The islands are in the middle of international shipping lanes, with an estimated $6 trillion in trade carried by ships each year through those waters.
In early April, the Philippines warned China its presence was illegal in the Spratly Islands and warned Beijing to “lay off” Thitu Island — one of those islands— or risk a military response.