Over the last year, Vietnam has continued with a substantial program of dredging and landfill work in the Spratly Islands which began in 2021. Since AMTI last surveyed these efforts in December 2022, Vietnam has created another 330 acres of land, bringing its total during the current spate of building to 750 acres. By contrast, Vietnam had created just 120 acres of land in the Spratlys between 2012 and 2022. This all adds up to about a quarter of the more than 3,200 acres of land created by China from 2013 to 2016, but it is far more island expansion than any other claimant besides China has undertaken. And in October 2023, Vietnam began new dredging at two additional outposts.
Five small and medium-sized outposts stand out in terms of the acreage of new land.
Barque Canada Reef has undergone the largest transformation by far. Formerly one of Vietnam’s smallest outposts, over 210 acres of new land have been created at Barque Canada in the last year, making it now the largest Vietnamese-occupied feature in the South China Sea. Landfill and harbor dredging has continued at Pearson Reef and Namyit Island, where 163 and 119 acres have been added since work began in 2021. Work has also continued at Sand Cay and Tennent Reef, which have been expanded by 82 and 62 acres respectively since 2021.
In order to accelerate its dredging efforts, Vietnam has turned to a tool that it had previously shied away from: cutter suction dredgers.
Cutter-suction dredging at Pearson Reef and Barque Canada Reef
Seen in imagery aiding with the massive expansion of Barque Canada Reef and deepening the harbors at Pearson Reef and Namyit Island, these dredgers are of the same type that China was criticized for using during its island-building campaign in 2014-2017 due to their outsize ecological impact.
This October, Vietnam began dredging at two additional features: South Reef and Central Reef.
Dredging at these features has proceeded thus far using Vietnam’s more typical method of building temporary causeways to allow construction vehicles to scoop sediment from surrounding shallow reef areas.
Dredging has continued at a smaller scale at Alison Reef, Cornwallis South Reef, Ladd Reef, and Discovery Great Reef, which each have less than 20 acres of new land. But the rapid enlargement of similarly small Barque Canada Reef over the last year means that a major expansion of any of these reefs in the future cannot be ruled out.
Vietnam’s efforts thus far have remained focused primarily on dredging and landfill, with construction of infrastructure yet to begin in earnest at most features. Preliminary construction of tunnels/trenches of a type common among Vietnamese outposts can be seen at Namyit Island.
It has been speculated that Vietnam would use its expansion efforts to construct a second airstrip in the Spratly Islands, but the current arrangement of landfill at Namyit Island and Pearson Reef does not have allowance for a runway large enough for military use. The new scale of Barque Canada Reef would allow for the possibility of a runway, but there are no indications of efforts to construct one, with work currently focused on expanding the land area.