Reports that China has installed advanced missile systems in the Spratly islands come as a further blow to Vietnam’s attempts to assert its territorial claims in the area.
Intelligence reports quoted by US media indicate that China has set up anti-ship cruise missiles and surface to air systems on three of its new military bases in the island chain.
If confirmed, Vietnamese ships and aircraft, and those of other claimants, must now operate within range of powerful Chinese weapons systems.
Vietnam has been building up its offshore military capabilities in recent years and has reinforced some of its outposts in the Spratlys.
However, its efforts have been surpassed many times over by China’s rapid militarisation of the South China Sea.
Vietnam’s recent protests that China’s build-up has violated its sovereignty have fallen on deaf ears.
Consolidating its grip
CNBC, quoting unnamed sources with knowledge of intelligence reports, said the Chinese missiles were moved to the recently constructed bases within the last month.
It said the anti-ship cruise missiles, identified as YJ-12B, would be able to hit ships at a range of 295 nautical miles.
The report said the surface-to-air missiles, HQ-9B, would be able to target aircraft, drones and cruise missiles at a range of 160 nautical miles.
Top US naval commanders have warned that China is consolidating its grip on the South China Sea and will soon be able to overwhelm the forces of the other claimants.
The latest move follows China’s installation last month of military jamming equipment at Mischief Reef and Fiery Cross, formerly partially submerged reefs that now boast long runways, hangars and reinforced concrete bunkers.
Analysts believe it is preparing the ground for the deployment of military aircraft and ships that will extend China’s reach to the far corners of the South China Sea, more than a thousand kilometres from its naval base on Hainan.
Vietnam condemned China’s move last month, saying that it had violated fundamental principles that the two sides had agreed upon.
Hanoi, however, has acted with increasing circumspection in its dealings with China, appearing to accept that it’s unable to challenge Beijing’s fast growing military power in the region.
In the last year, it has abruptly postponed or cancelled two major oil drilling projects that were due to begin within its own EEZ because of threats from China.
Capabilities to drive out US ships
Beijing has dropped its previous claims that it had no intention of militarising the South China Sea.
Chinese officials categorise their actions as a defensive move to protect what they see as Chinese territorial waters from what they claim is a US build-up.
The United States periodically sends naval vessels on “freedom of navigation” missions through the South China sea, and recently deployed an aircraft carrier battle fleet to the Vietnamese port of Danang.
US admirals worry, however, that China is fast developing capabilities designed to drive the American navy further offshore and eventually out of the South China Sea altogether.