Vietnam has yet again condemned China after the latter completed a runway for military aircraft on an island in the East Sea (the Vietnamese term for the South China Sea) over which Hanoi claims sovereignty.
“Vietnam has incontestable sovereignty over the Hoang Sa Islands,” Le Hai Binh, the Vietnamese foreign ministry spokesman, said at a press briefing Thursday, using the Vietnamese name for the Paracel chain.
The building of the new facility stretching across Woody Island, part of the Paracels, violates the resolution on China-Vietnam maritime issues signed in October 2011 and the Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in 2002, Binh said.
He dismissed the building of the military airstrip as "invalid".
“Vietnam demands that China respect [our] sovereignty and not repeat such wrongful activities,” Binh said.
China invaded the Paracel Islands in 1974, shortly after the withdrawal of American naval ships. It waged a brief but bloody naval assault on troops from the then US-backed Republic of Vietnam.
Vietnam's giant northern neighbor has illegally occupied the islands ever since and the post-1975 united Vietnam has always reiterated its claims to the Paracel Islands and continues to maintain military bases and other facilities in the nearby Spratly Islands.
On Tuesday, AFP quoted a report by China’s Xinhua news agency as saying that the runway was 2,000 meters long, and indicated it would have military uses.
"With the completion and continued improvements to the runway on Yongxing, military aircraft can be based in the Paracels, and greatly improve Chinese defense capabilities in the Xisha and Nansha islands," Xinhua said, using the Chinese names for the Paracels and Spratlys, a separate island chain.
Pictures posted with the report showed part of the airstrip surrounded by construction cranes and clear blue water, AFP said.
China previously built a school on Woody Island for 40 children whose parents work there, the newswire quoted Chinese state- media as saying in June.
The runway is Beijing's latest physical assertion of control in the area, two years after it declared a city named Sansha centered on Woody Island to administer vast swathes of the East Sea.
China claims almost 90 percent of the potentially energy rich ocean despite competing claims from Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan.
The waters are thought to hold vast untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that could potentially place those who control them in league with the likes of Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Qatar.
In early May, China deployed a massive oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, triggering peaceful anti-China protests that later turned into looting in industrial parks on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City and deadly riots in central Vietnam in mid-May.
The crisis also sent Sino-Vietnamese ties plunging toward their lowest point in decades.
Although China withdrew its rig in July, independent analysts expect China will ultimately pursue unchecked control over the disputed waters below its southern border.
In recent months, China has also ramped up a number of land reclamation projects on small islands in the Spratly Islands. Beijing said in August it planned to build lighthouses on five islets, two of which sit inside the Paracel Islands.
In March, the Philippines submitted a case to an arbitration tribunal at The Hague, challenging China's claims in the East Sea. A recent BBC report documented a Chinese project to dredge tons of rock and sand from the sea floor to pump into the Johnson South Reef in the Spratlys which Vietnam claims. The works appear to have been going on for months, according to BBC.
Analysts say China’s choice of these five features—the status of which (as islands, rocks, or low tide elevations) are all part of the Philippines’ case against China in the court—was now accident.
“It seems Beijing is trying to change facts on the ground to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for the court to decide what the original status of these features may have been,” Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia analyst at the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Thanh Nien News.
Overall, analysts say the constructions are part of China’s multiple-component strategy to strengthen its claims and presences in the Spratlys this year.
“The relatively low level of intensity of tension created by the construction, in comparison to the oil rig deployment in May (a high-intensity strategy) makes it more difficult for the international community to respond,” said Yun Sun, a China security policy expert with the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank.
“But they are both components to China’s larger strategy to enhance its claims and presence in the region.”