China’s recently revealed massive land reclamation activities in the South China Sea represent a particular threat to rival claimant Vietnam’s strategic position and interests. Factional competition ahead of next year’s Communist Party National Congress, where five-year plans, policies, and leadership positions are determined, has complicated Hanoi’s ability to devise a coherent and credible response to the maritime area’s increasingly complex geopolitics.
Recent reports on China’s island-building have heralded a strategic shift, one that aims to extend its traditional “offshore waters defense” to “open seas protection.” Financial Times reported on June 7 that the dredging appears “to be aimed at creating military facilities, including a 3km runway capable of handling fighter jets” that could be employed “to claim airspace over the South China Sea by declaring an air defense identification zone once the runway is finished.”
Although largely geared for anti-ship operations, Vietnam’s navy and air force are already severely outgunned and outnumbered by China’s People’s Liberation Army. Those qualitative and quantitative differences have widened in recent years as China has bolstered its naval capacities and reach, and Vietnam has scrambled to procure and integrate enough vessels, mainly Russian submarines, to create a credible deterrent force.