Satellite evidence of recent dredging work by Vietnam in the contested South China Sea has provoked yet another strong reaction from China.
Reuters reports that Vietnam is beginning work on artificially increasing the land mass of the Ladd Reef as seen from satellite images taken on November 30th by US-based Planet Labs.
Located at the southern end of the contested Spratly Islands, Ladd Reef is completely submerged at high tide but has come to be equipped with a lighthouse and a small contingent of Vietnamese soldiers.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang asserted that China has “indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands, including Riji Reef”, using Beijing’s terms for the Spratlys and Ladd Reef.
“We urge the relevant countries to respect China’s sovereignty and rights, end their illegal invasion and construction activities, and not to take actions that could complicate the situation,” Lu said.
Both Vietnam and China have added to their South China Sea holdings by using land reclamation techniques; however not quite at an equal rate. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative estimates that Vietnam has added around 120 acres to its territorial holdings while China has added a whopping 3,200 acres.
Image of Riji Reef taken on July 19th, 2016.
Image of Riji Reef taken on November 30th, 2016.
Over the past two years, China has engaged in extensive land reclamation projects that include airport runways and self-described “limited and necessary self-defensive facilities.” Despite accusations from its neighbors, Beijing has steadfastly denied that it is “militarizing” the South China Sea, even while deploying fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles to the area.
The United States has maintained that dredging work is illegal, and has requested an end to all land reclamation in order to de-escalate tensions. At the same time, the US has been responsible for deploying warships to the area, prompting Beijing to accuse Washington of “provocative actions.”
Although Vietnam’s latest act may cause tensions to rise, other developments have had a calming effect on the region.
With Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lashing out against long-time ally the USA and claiming that “only China can help us,” China and the Philippines have experienced a thaw in bi-lateral relations ever since Duterte’s visit to Beijing in October. Since then, imports on Filipino bananas have opened back up, while Filipino fishermen have regained access to the Scarborough Shoals for the first time since it was seized by China in 2012.
The amicable relations between the regional rivals come despite a ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague this past summer that rejected China’s vast claims to the South China Sea. China swiftly rejected the ruling.
While China may view Vietnam’s land reclamation efforts as provocative, it doesn’t seem that they have much ground to stand on. In the past, China has upset Vietnam by landing planes, conducting marriages, having stewardesses pose for pictures, and expanding WiFi coverage on its South China Sea territorial holdings.
In response, one Vietnamese customs officer allegedly took revenge in July by writing “Fuck you” on a Chinese traveler’s passport, covering up the nine-dash line.
By Charles Liu
[Images via Reuters]
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