China has warned Vietnam to stop construction work in the disputed Spratly Islands – the latest sign that trust between the neighbouring countries remains dangerously low.
Earlier reports said Vietnam had begun dredging work on one of the reefs it occupies in the south-west of the contested island group.
Analysts believe Vietnam is attempting to shore up its defences in the area amid fears that China may attempt to seize more territory.
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said that Beijing had indisputable sovereignty over all the islands and reefs in the Spratlys.
“We urge the relevant country to respect our sovereignty and our relevant rights and stop construction activities and refrain from complicating the situation and work with China to safeguard and peace stability in the South China Sea,” he said.
Satellite images appear to indicate that Vietnamese vessels are carrying out dredging work after cutting a new channel on Ladd reef. The feature is fully submerged at high tide but has a lighthouse and a guard post for a small contingent of Vietnamese troops.
Officials in Hanoi have made no comment. They were also silent when Reuters reported earlier this year that Vietnam had deployed potent new missile systems on some of its outposts in the disputed chain.
Vietnam occupies some 21 features in the Spratlys and has taken steps in recent years to improve defensive facilities on its main islands to deter aggression.
Some of the work appears to have been a direct response to expansive construction work undertaken by China on its seven reefs and shoals, building up artificial islands and constructing runways and port facilities.
Experts say that Vietnam’s activities are on a much smaller scale but appear to reflect its fears that some positions are vulnerable to sudden Chinese attack.
The strategic balance in the South China Sea has become even more uncertain in recent months, underlining Vietnam’s weakness as it tries to resist China’s claim to sovereignty over a vast swathe of ocean.
Vietnam’s position has been undermined by the new Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has abandoned his predecessor’s policy of standing up to China’s assertiveness, and is now seeking a bilateral deal with Beijing.
Deep uncertainties about the intentions of Donald Trump have also added to Vietnam’s worries. His isolationist tendencies coupled with a penchant for baiting Beijing could prove a recipe for even deeper instability.
Washington has taken no position on the sovereignty of the islands, but it has challenged China’s expansionist policies, and the South China Sea has emerged as a potential flash point in the broader strategic confrontation between the US and China.