China’s Airstrip in Paracel Islands Heightens Vietnam Tensions

China’s completion of an upgraded airstrip in the disputed Paracel Islands gives it another foothold in the South China Sea and risks sparking a renewed diplomatic rift with communist neighbor Vietnam.

Vietnam foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh yesterday called the two-kilometer-long runway on Woody Island, part of the Paracel group, a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty after photos of the project appeared in Chinese media this week. In July, a Chinese company removed an oil rig it had placed in contested waters off Vietnam’s coast after skirmishes between boats of the two countries and deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

China’s presence on the island it calls Yongxing, which houses banks, post offices and government buildings, is likely to further strain ties with fellow claimants to the South China Sea, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run. The military facility could spur countries such as Vietnam to turn to the U.S. for sophisticated maritime aircraft to counter China’s actions.

“It has a huge significance for Chinese ability to exercise its sovereignty claims over the South China Sea,” Collin Koh, an associate research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said by phone. “Vietnam is not going to let this go easily. It’s going to lead to more diplomatic tensions.”

China’s runway violates international law and damages ties, Vietnam News cited foreign ministry spokesman Binh as saying. The move contravenes an accord between Vietnam and China on settling sea disputes and a 2002 agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on conduct in the area, he said.

Shelters, Fuel

Clashes between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels near the oil rig during the summer highlighted China’s limited maritime air surveillance in the region, according to Koh. An offer by Malaysia offer to host U.S. P-8 Poseidon surveillance airplanes in the country further unnerved China, he said.

The Woody Island outpost is set to become a military command and control network, he said.

“It’s not just about lengthening the runway,” Koh said. “It’s about having shelters for small aircraft like jet fighters, underground bunkers for fuel and ammunition.”

China considers much of the South China Sea its territory based on its nine-dash line map first published in the 1940s. The map covers an area that extends hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island and takes in the Paracels, which are claimed by Vietnam, and the Spratly Islands, some of which are claimed by the Philippines. China is creating artificial islands in the Spratly area.

“China is sending a message to everyone in the world about its resolve to maintain what it perceives as its territorial integrity,” Alexander Vuving, a security analyst at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii, said by phone. “China is hardening its position with all of these things.”

Nonlethal Weapons

Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry informed Vietnam Deputy Prime Minister Pham Binh Minh, who is also foreign minister, that Vietnam will be able to buy nonlethal weapons from the U.S. Topping Vietnam’s list will be the P-3 Orion, a surveillance airplane that, while not as sophisticated as the P-8, has more capabilities than China’s spy aircraft, Koh said.

Countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines are concerned that China will seek to establish an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea as it has done in the East China Sea, Koh said.

China is betting that its ideological bonds with Vietnam, as well as Vietnam’s economic reliance on China, will keep its Southeast Asian neighbor in its orbit, Vuving said. This belies the growing distrust among Vietnam’s rulers who are forging closer ties with U.S., India and Japan, he said.

“It’s a bad gamble,” Vuving said. “You are going to see a rearrangement of the constellation in the region.”

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