Asian Geopolitics
Vietnam Continues Buildup in South China Sea

Vietnam continues its efforts to build up muscle in the South China Sea, with new images revealing that Hanoi has begun preliminary dredging work on Ladd Reef. Reuters:

Vietnam has begun dredging work on a disputed reef in the South China Sea, satellite imagery shows, the latest move by the Communist state to bolster its claims in the strategic waterway. 

Activity visible on Ladd Reef in the Spratly Islands could anger Hanoi’s main South China Sea rival, Beijing, which claims sovereignty over the group and most of the resource-rich sea. […] 

While the purpose of the activity cannot be determined for certain, analysts say similar dredging work has been the precursor to more extensive construction on other reefs.

“We can see that, in this environment, Vietnam’s strategic mistrust is total … and they are rapidly improving their defences,” said Trevor Hollingsbee, a retired naval intelligence analyst with Britain’s defence ministry.

Ladd Reef is situated just to the west of Spratly Island, where Vietnam has lately been extending a runway that will allow for the deployment of maritime spy aircraft. The early work on Ladd Reef—already home to a Vietnamese lighthouse and housing for a small contingent of soldiers—could be aimed at defending that nearby outpost.

In any case, Vietnam is taking no chances when it comes to China. Hanoi has been taking a hard-line stance against Beijing’s claims for some time now, boosting military spending and carrying out its own reclamation in the South China Sea. The current climate of uncertainty in Asia could exacerbate the trend.

The Obama administration’s legalistic, “rules-based” approach to the South China Sea has clearly failed: China never recognized the ruling of the international Hague tribunal that rejected its extensive claims, and the Philippines’ surprise pivot to Beijing has only undermined that ruling’s credibility. Faced with an increasingly assertive Beijing, it is no surprise that countries like Vietnam would take unilateral steps to fortify their own positions and maximize their advantages.

And Vietnam’s play, apart from its value in establishing facts on the ground, could easily also be a bid for the incoming President’s attention. Donald Trump has already thrust himself into political controversy in Asia, by taking a call from the Taiwanese president and endorsing Duterte’s anti-drug policies—both assertive moves that have given Obama Administration veterans the vapors. Team Trump clearly sees China as a major geopolitical rival to the United States, with only ISIS being a more pressing concern. A strong move by Hanoi in the South China Sea, then, may well prove to be smart politics.

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