Vietnam’s militarization of the Spratlys (Kalayaan)

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Second of 3 parts

UNLIKE the Philippines which formally claimed part of the Spratlys only in 1978 through Marcos’ Presidential Decree 1596, the Vietnamese, like the Chinese, assert that their sovereignty was actually established from centuries back, in the case of Vietnam by its Nguyen emperors (1558-1775).

Thus, as in the case of the Chinese, the Vietnamese see their loss of sovereignty over the Spratlys and the Paracels to foreign powers as part of their “century of humiliation,” as the former put it, when the West invaded and grabbed their territories.

Who occupies what in the Spratlys: Vietnam, box with star; Philippines, flag; China, yellow circle. Map by author using Google Earth

Reclaiming it therefore is essential to the strengthening of their pride as a nation recovering their past glory.

This is so unlike the case of the Philippines whose citizens are mostly oblivious of the country’s Kalayaan Island Group (KIG). After Marcos, all administrations even neglected to maintain the airport and the facilities in the biggest island it controls in the area, Pag-asa (also known as Thitu).*

The Philippines’ failure to develop its occupied features is in stark contrast to Vietnam, China and Malaysia which have all expanded their possessions through reclamation and the construction of huge facilities such as ports, airstrips and other upgrades.

A stark example of such neglect is the case of Parola Island, which is adjacent to Pugad that, as the first part of this series narrated, the Philippines lost to Vietnam because of Vietnamese trickery. After the Marcos years, the Philippines has basically done nothing with it except to station seven soldiers in the cay on a rotating basis, where they live in a dilapidated barracks and with little food and fresh water.

In contrast, the Vietnamese have developed Pugad Island, reclaiming land around it so its area has doubled from 12 hectares to 25 hectares. The Vietnamese extended the island’s ends to build a bay that can accommodate military vessels. They have practically covered the entire island with buildings that could house military staff, communication facilities, and other types of installations, including one that is suspected to be a missile launcher.

Vietnam actually was on the heels of the Chinese when it undertook, starting in 2013, a massive land reclamation to transform the reefs it occupied into artificial islands, in response to the Philippines’ filing of the arbitration suit against China. Vietnam’s building activity though, as it is much poorer than China, on a lesser scale than the Chinese, who had the advantage of new dredging and reclamation technology, and even built what are now the biggest dredging ships in the world. Vietnam’s reclamation work has increased the total area of its occupied features in the Spratlys by 50 hectares.

In the case of the Philippines, it even lost land to the sea because part of the airstrip built in the early 1970s on Pag-asa Island has eroded. The only new Filipino “installation” in the Spratlys was made by President Joseph Estrada in 1998, when his Navy grounded a rusty World War 2 vessel on Ayungin Shoal to act as the Philippines’ fortification there, where 15 marines are stationed on a rotating basis.

By 2021, Vietnam had built on the 29 features it occupied in the Spratlys one airport (on Spratly Islands), 13 artificial islands, 38 helipads, 49 reef forts, four radar stations and 28 “rigs.” Vietnam’s outposts in the South China Sea fall into three categories: occupied islets, concrete buildings atop reefs (called “pillboxes”), and isolated platforms constructed on undersea banks, the so-called DK1 rigs.

Vietnam’s ‘DK1’ military outposts in the Spratlys. VnExpress

These rigs (called DK1 by the Vietnamese) have been Vietnam’s unique strategy to assert its sovereignty in the Spratlys at much lesser cost than those incurred by the Chinese with their artificial islands. The structures are patterned after offshore oil rigs and 29 of these have been built on nine submerged banks and shoals from 1997 to 2016.

“Together with guardian vessels, these ‘DK1’ rigs could monitor and expel foreign fishing vessels away from nearby waters, and accommodate injured or sick Vietnamese fishermen for treatment, creating favorable conditions for helicopters to pick up and rescue the sick and the ‘wounded’,” a detailed study on Vietnam’s recent expansion and military deployment explained.

Vietnam in fact boasts that its DK1 rigs are a huge accomplishment in its defense of its Spratly possessions that its newspapers have run articles praising the architect of these rigs and hailing the heroism of soldiers stationed on these rigs for months.

Vietnam doesn’t hide the fact that the features it occupies are military installations. An article in the Vietnamese media Vinexpress was headlined: “The military outposts guarding Vietnam’s southern continental shelf, a look back.” Instead of being treated as part of a province as in the case of China and the Philippines, the Vietnamese-occupied features of the Spratly islands are supervised by military commands: the Naval Regions 2 and 4 of the Vietnamese Navy.

The same article pointed out:

“The Spratly island and the Namyit island are two core braces for the line of defense for features of the Spratly islands, where battalion-level units of troops are stationed. The most powerful artillery on these islands is composed of towed 122mm howitzers and 130mm cannons, and the air defense firepower is enabled by old-type 23mm and 37mm anti-aircraft guns.

“Meanwhile, old T-34/85 medium tanks and PT-76 amphibious light tanks which were provided by the former Soviet Union as aid, Type-63 amphibious light tanks which were provided by China as aid, and tank turret forts constitute their flexible and fixed anti-landing gun emplacements.

“In addition, a VRS-CSX X-band medium-range coastal warning radar system, which is developed by Viettel (modeled on the Score 3000 radar system of France’s Thales Group) and capable of detecting targets at a distance of up to 170 kilometers, has been installed on these islands.”

The Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, a US think tank that has been an anti-China propaganda venue on the SCS dispute, published in February 2021 an article that detailed Vietnam’s accelerated militarization of its facilities in the Spratlys. It claimed that it was “Hanoi’s continuing focus on making its bases more resilient to invasion or blockade and strengthening deterrence by ensuring it can strike Chinese facilities.”

The article very significantly pointed out:

“Vietnam also reportedly has newer, longer-range weapons systems on its outposts. Reuters reported in 2016 that Hanoi had deployed EXTRA [extended-range artillery] systems recently acquired from Israel to five of the Spratlys. The small size of these systems would make them easy to quickly deploy and conceal. They require minimal supporting infrastructure and could be fired from any of the pads identified above, and probably from any other reasonably flat, hard surface. That means they could easily be present at any, or all, of Vietnam’s 10 largest islets… With a range of 150 kilometers (80 nautical miles), Vietnamese EXTRA systems could already be capable of striking all of China’s Spratly bases.”

But sticking to its task as an anti-China website, AMTI did not mention that the AMTI rockets are also capable of striking Philippine-held islands.

*(From 1970 to 1971, President Ferdinand E. Marcos secretly ordered his troops to occupy the six biggest islands in the Spratlys, including the second largest, Pag-asa. Marcos was prodded to do so by US and European firms and their Filipino partners in order to secure the submerged Reed Bank, which was believed (to this day) to have vast deposits of natural gas. The South Vietnamese scrambled to grab what were remaining features, occupying six islands and cays in the area from 1973 to 1975. US oil exploration firms based in Saigon which were also eyeing the Reed Bank, convinced — bribed, some historians claim — the South Vietnamese generals to do so, even as they were near to losing the civil war to North Vietnam. The Philippines and Vietnam occupied more features in subsequent years. After China emerged from its chaotic “Cultural Revolution” and started building its military and its blue-water navy, it occupied in 1988 six reefs in the Spratlys, Mischief Reef in 1994, and Scarborough Shoal in 2012, as the Philippines was fooled by a US diplomat in abandoning it. Details and sources of data for these are in my book Debacle: The Aquino regime’s Scarborough fiasco and the South China Sea arbitration deception, now available at Fully Booked stores.

Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao

Twitter: @bobitiglao


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Jonathan Belarmino Bangui

    None of these infrastructure matters in case war happens. The US imperialism depends on who seats in the White House. All of these events will change after the US elections in 2024. PBBM’s paranoia about the fate of his family before EDSA 1 will never be erased in his mind that is why personal interest gotten him instead of neutral foreign policy.

  2. Dorina S. Rojas

    US is playing PBBM and the Filipinos are buying it, even as former officials and retired officers of the AFP are drooling over the promises of modernization, protection of sovereignty, etc. with the media singing in the background like a back-up choir. Very amusing but also very disappointing. There is a fiesta in town, but we are aware of post-fiesta dramas that always happen after the celebration is over.

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