At the heart of the South China Sea dispute is the Spratly archipelago, a series of islands and reefs claimed by China, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, and the Philippines. Beijing has built a series of artificial islands in the archipelago, despite criticism from rival claimants that doing so puts their own security at risk.
With China’s nine-dash territorial claims rejected by the Hague-based Court of Arbitration last month, tensions have escalated, with both Beijing and Washington pushing for an increased military presence in response to the ruling. Now Vietnam has reportedly upped the ante by placing its own military units in the Spratlys.
Diplomats and military officers speaking on condition of anonymity say that intelligence shows Vietnam moving mobile missile launchers from the mainland to five separate facilities in the Spratly archipelago.
While intelligence indicates that the launchers are not currently armed, sources said they could be activated in as little as two days.
The launchers are believed to be EXTRA rocket artillery system units recently purchased from Israel. These have a range of roughly 93 miles and can attack multiple targets simultaneously. It is considered ideal for defending against amphibious landings.
The move by Vietnam puts launchers within range of China’s artificial islands at Fiery Cross, Mischief, and Subi Reef.
Hanoi has denied the allegations, calling the reports "inaccurate." In June, however, the country’s Deputy Defense Minister, Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, said that Vietnam reserved the right to do so.
"It is within our legitimate right to self-defense to move any of our weapons to any area at any time within our sovereign territory."
Beijing has condemned the move.
"China has indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and nearby waters," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
"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 US government issued a statement, urging calm.
"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."
The US and its allies have repeatedly condemned China’s land reclamation projects in the South China Sea, a highly contested region through which roughly $5 trillion in international trade passes annually. Washington has conducted a number of provocative patrols within the 12-mile territorial limit of Beijing’s artificial islands.