Vietnam on back foot as China tightens grip in SCS

New facilities marked in red at Fiery Reef underline China’s commitment to military dominance of the disputed waters. Photo courtesy CSIS/AMTI

China has greatly increased its military potential in the South China Sea during 2017 according to a report released by an independent research group.

Hangers, bunkers and radar facilities have been completed on sprawling sites across the Spratly and Paracel Islands, enabling the PLA to project power deeper into the South China Sea, said the report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

China’s build-up in the area dwarfs efforts by Vietnam to fortify its own outposts in Spratly chain, and underlines Beijing’s growing confidence and assertiveness in the region.

AMTI said that the new Chinese facilities covered some 72 acres, and included hangars for fighters and reconnaissance aircraft, underground storage facilities for ammunition, radar towers and administrative buildings.

Air and naval bases

Much of the construction has been on three new airbases in the Spratlys following the completion last year of a hugely ambitious land reclamation project.

AMTI says that China will soon be in a position to launch the next stage of its build-up: the opening of fully functioning air and naval bases in areas that are also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and a number of other Southeast Asian countries.

The report said that the biggest construction effort had been on Fiery Cross reef, until recently a partially submerged sandbar in the far-flung Spratly chain.

It said that buildings now covered 27 acres on the reclaimed island, including large hangars along the runway, hardened shelters for missiles, radar and communications facilities and underground storage sites.

Similar facilities have been detected at Mischief Reef and Subi Reef in the same island cluster.

AMTI has also recorded the presence of new, more advanced J-11B fighters in the Paracel Islands, features claimed by Vietnam but occupied and fully controlled by China since 1974.

New radar towers on the most exposed of the Paracels, Triton, have also been completed, allowing China to detect activity by Vietnamese forces and the US navy.

The area has seen a number of US “freedom of navigation” missions, which Beijing has denounced as hostile intrusions.