Vietnam land-filling on disputed reef in Spratlys, imagery shows

Vietnam appears to be doing new construction and land-filling on a remote reef it occupies in the disputed South China Sea, commercial satellite imagery shows.

The feature in question is Pearson Reef in the Spratly island chain. Vietnam has occupied the reef since 1978 and has previously reclaimed about six acres of land there.

Planet Labs imagery taken Friday, when compared with a picture from March, shows new work has been underway at the southern tip of the northern part of the reef. The difference is even clearer when compared with an image from June 2020, as presented in the slider image below.


Satellite images taken about four months apart illustrate the expansion of the southern tip of Pearson Reef. (Planet Labs)


“That Planet image definitely shows a barge pulled up and what looks like plumes of sediment in the water,” Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C., told RFA.

“It is likely that they brought sand and backhoes in and are piling it on that southern edge of the island to expand it. Pearson has already been expanded by about six acres but all of that previous landfill was done prior to 2014,” Poling said.

This week, there have also been a number of ships in close proximity to Pearson Reef, satellite imagery shows. Each of them is about 50 to 70 meters in length, suggesting they may be supply ships.

The Vietnamese government doesn’t normally comment on such events, but according to AMTI, since 2014 Vietnam “has modestly expanded” many of the features it occupies in the South China Sea, according to AMTI.

Researcher Ca Vu Thanh, former director of Vietnam’s Institute of Seas and Islands, said his country holds “sufficient evidence of its sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.”

He was speaking to RFA in a personal capacity and not commenting directly on the development at Pearson Reef.

“Regarding the reclamation of features in the Spratly Islands, Vietnam has always made it clear that we adhere strictly to the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, as well as agreements achieved with China and other ASEAN countries,” Ca said.

“Vietnam only carries out works to prevent erosion and landslides in order to protect the features but not to expand nor change the structures of islands under its control,” he said.

Named after a national hero

The Spratlys, an archipelago of islets, cays and reefs in the southern part of the South China Sea, are subject to competing territorial claims by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Pearson Reef is classified by AMTI as a rock, 300 nautical miles east of Cam Ranh in central Vietnam.

In Vietnamese, it bears the name of Phan Vinh, after Nguyen Phan Vinh, a hero soldier who died in 1968 during the Vietnam War.

The reef is comprised of two sand cays, Phan Vinh A and Phan Vinh B, or Pearson Reef 1 and 2. Each hosts a number of facilities, including a Buddhist temple, to serve the stationing of soldiers and a few civilians, according to Vietnamese media.

They said the reef plays a very important role in the Spratly strategic defense belt for Vietnam.

Vietnam has 49 or 51 outposts spread across 27 features, AMTI said, adding that there is evidence of reclamation at 10 of the features.

China has been criticizing other countries, especially Vietnam, for their island building in the South China Sea.

However, by 2016 Vietnam had created just over 120 acres of new land in the South China Sea compared to almost 3,000 acres created by China, AMTI said.

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