As China continues to transform disputed territory in the South China Sea into features capable of sustaining air and naval bases, Vietnam is also upgrading areas it occupies.
Images taken by DigitalGlobe satellites in September show new facilities including a possible dry dock on West London Reef in the Spratly Island chain, around 680 kilometers (422 miles) southeast of Ho Chi Minh City, that could allow boats to stop for maintenance and patrol for longer periods.
While the work is vastly outweighed by what China is doing it suggests Hanoi wants to hold its ground over the contested waterway, even if it risks upsetting Beijing. In August, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered a construction halt on a 500 square-meter sand bar in the area after a protest from China.
“Maintaining and even consolidating a military and non-military presence has been consistently one of the key approaches for Vietnam’s strategy for the South China Sea,” said Alexander Vuving, a political analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.
Read more on China’s recent building activities in the South China Sea here
Vietnam has reclaimed about 120 acres across 10 islets since 2014, according to the Washington DC-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, extending runways and adding radar and patrol capabilities. By comparison, China has reclaimed more than 3,200 acres on seven features in the Spratlys, building ports, lighthouses and runways it says are mostly for civilian purposes or defense.