HONG KONG — Vietnam has discreetly fortified several of its islands in the disputed South China Sea with new mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China’s runways and military installations across the vital trade route, according to Western officials.
Diplomats and military officers told Reuters that intelligence shows Hanoi has shipped the launchers from the Vietnamese mainland into position on five bases in the Spratly islands in recent months, a move likely to raise tensions with Beijing.
The launchers have been hidden from aerial surveillance and they have yet to be armed, but could be made operational with rocket artillery rounds within two or three days, according to the three sources.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said the information was “inaccurate”, without elaborating.
Deputy Defence Minister, Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, told Reuters in Singapore in June that Hanoi had no such launchers or weapons ready in the Spratlys but reserved the right to take any such measures.
“It is within our legitimate right to self-defence to move any of our weapons to any area at any time within our sovereign territory,” he said.
The move is designed to counter China’s build-up on its seven reclaimed islands in the Spratlys archipelago. Vietnam’s military strategists fear the building runways, radars and other military installations on those holdings have left Vietnam’s southern and island defences increasingly vulnerable.
Military analysts say it is the most significant defensive move Vietnam has made on its holdings in the South China Sea in decades.
Hanoi wanted to have the launchers in place as it expected tensions to rise in the wake of the landmark international court ruling against China in an arbitration case brought by the Philippines, foreign envoys said.
The ruling last month, stridently rejected by Beijing, found no legal basis to China’s sweeping historic claims to much of the South China Sea.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and nearby waters,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement yesterday.
“China resolutely opposes the relevant country illegally occupying parts of China’s Spratly islands and reefs and on these illegally occupied Spratly islands and reefs belonging to China carrying out illegal construction and military deployments.”
The United States is also monitoring developments closely.
“We continue to call on all South China Sea claimants to avoid actions that raise tensions, take practical steps to build confidence, and intensify efforts to find peaceful, diplomatic solutions to disputes,” a State Department official said.
Foreign officials and military analysts believe the launchers form part of Vietnam’s state-of-art EXTRA rocket artillery system recently acquired from Israel.
EXTRA rounds are highly accurate up to a range of 150km, with different 150kg warheads that can carry high explosives or bomblets to attack multiple targets simultaneously. Operated with targeting drones, they could strike both ships and land targets.
That puts China’s 3,000m runways and installations on Subi, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef within range of many of Vietnam’s tightly clustered holdings on 21 islands and reefs.
While Vietnam has larger and longer range Russian coastal defence missiles, the EXTRA is considered highly mobile and effective against amphibious landings. It uses compact radars, so does not require a large operational footprint — also suitable for deployment on islets and reefs.
“When Vietnam acquired the EXTRA system, it was always thought that it would be deployed on the Spratlys … it is the perfect weapon for that,” said Siemon Wezeman, a senior arms researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
There is no sign the launchers have been recently test fired or moved.
In Washington, a research group said satellite photographs taken in June show China appears to have built reinforced aircraft hangars on its holdings in disputed South China Sea islands.
The hangars on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly islands have room for any fighter jet in the Chinese air force, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) said in a report. — Reuters