Vietnam is reported to be strengthening its military position in the Spratly Islands in what looks like a startlingly bold response to China’s buildup in the area.
The Reuters news agency quoted unidentified intelligence sources as saying that modern rocket launchers, recently imported from Israel, had been deployed on five of its 21 features in the Spratlys.
The missiles would be in a position to threaten China’s fast developing military potential on the seven reclaimed islands it has built on once partially submerged reefs and shoals in the same area.
The Vietnamese foreign ministry described the reports as “inaccurate” in a terse comment that fell short of a full denial.
Vietnam has been relatively cautious and measured in its verbal responses to the recent ruling by an international panel at The Hague that rejected many of China’s claims in the South China Sea.
The deployment of a highly effective modern rocket system, if confirmed, would signal Vietnam’s resolve to resist China’s growing military presence.
The move is likely to further antagonise China, with has responded with fury to the legal ruling on the South China Sea, and seems set on pressing its territorial claims still harder.
Reuters reported that the launchers are part of the EXTRA system – developed by Israel and purchased by Vietnam earlier this year – and had been shipped quietly to the islands and hidden from aerial surveillance.
It said they could be armed and made operational within a few days once a decision was made.
Military journals say the launchers are highly mobile and could deliver 150 kg warheads up to 150 km, well within range of the new airstrips being built by China on its reclaimed islands.
China still retains overwhelming military superiority over Vietnam on land and at sea.
However, Vietnam has been rapidly building up its defences in recent years, sending a message that Beijing would have to pay a price for any military adventures.
Hanoi is also fast developing closer diplomatic and military ties with the United States, India and Japan, which all have an interest in containing Beijing’s ambitions.
Vietnam lost 64 soldiers during a clash with China in the Spratly Islands in 1988.
It also lost its remaining hold on the still disputed Paracel Islands in 1974, when South Vietnamese troops were evicted by Chinese forces.
This time Vietnam looks more prepared to take a stand, despite the severe price it may have to pay in relations with its northern neighbour.