Vietnam's Island-Building in Disputed Waters Stokes Tensions With China

Jun 25, 2024

Vietnam has increased its pace of building islands in the waters of the South China Sea. It has some experts on Southeast Asian foreign policy worried. They believe it could turn a tense dispute with China into a graver conflict. Both sides lay claim to a large swath of the sea and its underground oil-rich region.    

In the past three years, Vietnam has reclaimed over 2,000 acres of land from the ocean. It's reclaimed nearly 700 acres since November 2023, a recent report said. That’s nearly as much as the Southeast Asian country reclaimed in the former two years. The report was issued by an Asian maritime analysis outfit. 

Since 2013, China has built seven artificial islands in the mostly vacant Spratly Islands. It's to strengthen its claim on these waters. China has stocked three of them with airfields, aircraft hangars, missiles, and other military hardware.

China, Taiwan, and Vietnam all claim these islands belong to them. Malaysia and the Philippines claim a portion.

Some think Vietnam should react strongly to China’s efforts to take control of the South China Sea. Song Phan urges caution instead. Phan is an expert on the region. "In my opinion, all sides need to strive to preserve the status quo in the sea,” Phan told Eurasia Review. Phan is based in Sydney   

China is flatly against Vietnam’s building of islands. But at least one other rival country has expressed a nuanced view. The Philippine Navy says it's watching events. But coast guard spokesman Jay Tarriela told reporters that Vietnam prefers to focus on its "own affairs." 

Unlike China, Tarriela said, Vietnam doesn’t harass “our fishermen.” And they don't illegally send coast guard ships into waters around “our occupied maritime features,” he added.

Reflect: How can countries attempt to solve disputes over territory peacefully?

Photo of contested shoals in the South China Sea from Reuters.

Which of the following is the argument presented in this article? (Common Core RI.5.8; RI.6.8)
a. The South China Sea dispute is overblown.
b. Vietnam’s island-building is a direct response to China’s assertiveness.
c. The Philippines should take a stronger stance against Vietnam.
d. Malaysia and Taiwan are the primary stakeholders in the dispute.
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