In the last six months, Vietnam has engaged in new dredging and landfill at three of its occupied features in the Spratly Islands. And over the past year, it has continued minor upgrades and construction of new buildings on several bases. Amid these improvements, Vietnam has also had to repair significant storm damage sustained by one of its largest outposts, Southwest Cay, after Typhoon Rai swept across the region in December 2021.
As was the case with Vietnam’s past dredging and landfill, the overall scope of its new island expansion pales in comparison to the massive island-building that China engaged in between 2013 and 2016. But the recent work nevertheless marks a slight acceleration in the otherwise steady pace of Vietnam’s improvements to its facilities in the Spratly Islands. And it could open Hanoi to criticism from Beijing and other parties, though forthcoming AMTI reports will show that Vietnam is not the only claimant still undertaking new construction in the Spratlys.
Vietnam in October 2021 began new dredging and landfill work at three features: Pearson Reef, Namyit Island, and Sand Cay.
Clockwise from left: Pearson Reef, February 11, 2022; Namyit Island, January 22, 2022; Sand Cay March 17, 2022
Around 50 acres of new land each have so far been added to Pearson and Namyit, while only 7 acres have been created at Sand Cay. Vietnam appears to be dredging a modest harbor at each facility with access channels cut through the fringing reefs to the deeper water beyond. This is the same type of upgrade Vietnam has undertaken at all of its larger outposts in recent years. Vietnam’s dredging and landfill involves the use of clamshell dredgers and construction equipment to scoop up sections of shallow reef and deposit the sediment on the area targeted for landfill. This is a more time consuming and less arbitrarily destructive process than the cutter suction dredging that China used to build its artificial islands. The process also makes it tricky to determine how extensive planned landfill is at the early stages of the process.
Vietnam usually constructs numerous temporary strips of land across which its vehicles drive to collect sediment dredged from farther out in the reef. Comparing a November 2021 photo of Sand Cay, just a month into the construction process, with the more recent photo above is instructive. The temporary strips of reclaimed land seen in November have been abandoned and are washing away. They have served their purpose of transporting sediment to the main area of landfill on the feature’s northwest tip, which is more modest than might have been expected based on the earlier photo.
Sand Cay, November 9, 2021
Vietnam’s outpost at Southwest Cay, positioned at the northern end of the Spratly Islands, sustained significant damage from Typhoon Rai in December. The category 5-equivalent super typhoon devastated areas of the Philippines before continuing through the South China Sea.
Southwest Cay, January 6, 2022
Previously covered by dense foliage, Radio Free Asia reported in December (citing a Voice of Vietnam report) that 90 percent of the trees on Southwest Cay were uprooted and several small buildings and solar panels were destroyed. Most of the main buildings on the southern side of the outpost appeared unscathed in satellite imagery, but damage to several structures on the northeast corner was apparent in a January 6 image:
Southwest Cay on January 6, 2022 (left) and October 31, 2021 (right)
A more recent photo shows that these damaged roofs have since been repaired, though the solar panels do not appear to have been replaced yet. A nearby building has also received a new patriotic coat of paint.
Southwest Cay, March 2, 2022
Vietnam has continued to make improvements to its other occupied features. On West Reef, several new buildings are approaching completion after beginning construction last August.
West Reef, March 7, 2022
A new building was constructed last fall at Sin Cowe Island, and areas that were cleared for the construction of new coastal defense fortifications in 2020 have now been filled in with vegetation.
Sin Cowe Island, January 9, 2022
Vietnam also completed the expansion of a pillbox outpost last July at Cornwallis South Reef to include a second structure connected to the first by a bridge:
Cornwallis South Reef 1, January 3, 2022
Since 2013, Vietnam has upgraded 9 of its 10 island bases (all but Amboyna Cay), 10 of its 24 reef-based pillboxes, and 12 of its 14 isolated “DK1” platforms in the deeper waters to the southwest, as shown in the interactive below: