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The location of the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. Photo courtesy Wikipedia
When Taiwan’s Department of Land Administration was surveying the disputed South China Sea in 2014 to see which country had what, it noticed a lot of landfill. Everyone knew China was expanding atolls in the ocean’s Paracel and Spratly archipelagos, and they know now that China has parked anti-aircraft missiles in the Paracels. China grabs attention because it worries officials as far away as Washington about possible designs to control the whole 3.5 million-square-kilometer body of water, which is crucial to international commerce as well as resources from fish to oil. Control over even tiny land features implies rights to much bigger tracts of water.
Taiwan claims the sea, too. What did it find?
It was Vietnam that had reclaimed the most islets, reefs and rocks. Hanoi has now fortified 27 such land features in parts of the South China Sea off its east coast, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative under U.S. think tank CSIS. Vietnam wants to shore up rights to a continental shelf off its 3,444 kilometer-long coast. That mission explains Hanoi’s claims to the Paracel and Spratly chains, also not far offshore. China’s effort to occupy those islets naturally outrages Vietnamese leaders. Their dispute led to the ramming of boats and riots in 2014 when China let an offshore oil driller place a rig in a tract both sides claim.
A Vietnamese activist wears a sign during a protest in front of the White House July 25, 2013. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
“Vietnam has extended a claim over the Paracels and Spratlys since the French did so in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” CSIS initiative director Greg Poling says, referring to the country’s former colonizer. “It is no more going to give up those territorial claims than any other claimant.”
One of Vietnam’s developed islets sits in view of Taiwan’s biggest holding and storm-battered Vietnamese fishing boats sometimes call on the Taiwanese for help. Last year Vietnam began reclamation at Cornwallis Reef in the same archipelago and dredged two channels deep enough for large ships, CSIS found. Small artificial islands took shape along the channels for total reclamation of four acres, or 16,000 square meters.
But Vietnam has not stirred up regional resentment or raised alarm in Washington as China has. Chinese landfill work covers about 3,000 acres. Reclamation overseen by Beijing has used dozens of ships to break up coral and pour it on top of remaining reefs, CSIS found. The initiative director calls Vietnam’s reclamation approach “far less environmentally destructive” than China’s. Beijing also runs the largest military of the six ocean claimants. Chinese officials base their claim to nearly the entire ocean on historic documents, rather than an interpretation of international law cited by Vietnam.
“Vietnam claims sovereignty over this part and it’s reasonable for them to do so,” says Nathan Liu, an international affairs and diplomacy professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan. Compared to China, he adds, “I don’t think we should be worried about their military buildup.” Courtesy Forbes