China’s Latest Activities Along Sino-Vietnamese Border And In The South China Sea Raise Concerns

Written by Trinh-Don Nguyen

Two surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites are being built by China near the border with Viet Nam, according to satellite images obtained by the South China Sea Chronicle Initiative (SCSCI). 

One of the two SAM sites is just about 20 kilometres from the border and appears to be accompanied by what is very likely a military heliport also being constructed approximately 40 kilometres further into China’s territory. Past satellite imagery suggested that the construction started around June 2019 and is almost complete by now.

Photo: Satellite image and analysis provided by a partner of SCSCI indicate a SAM base being constructed approximately 20 kilometres from the border with Viet Nam in Ningming county, China’s Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.
Photo: Suspected military heliport being completed near the first SAM site in Guangxi, approximately 60 kilometres from the border with Viet Nam. (courtesy of SCSCI’s partner)

Another SAM site is suspectedly being built in Mengzi, Yunnan, less than 70 kilometres from the Vietnamese border. The Mengzi site’s construction seems to have commenced later, around June or July 2020, yet to be completed.

Photo: Satellite images of December 2020 show the construction of a complex which, based on various indications, is likely a SAM site. The site’s coordinates are 23.420647 N – 103.339724 E, in Mengzi, Yunnan. (courtesy of SCSCI’s partner)
Photo: Locations relative to the border with Viet Nam (yellow line) of the two SAM bases in Guangxi (1) and Yunnan (2), and what appears to be a military heliport associated with the 1st site (coordinates courtesy of SCSCI’s partner).

While construction of the SAM sites along the Sino-Vietnamese border edges towards completion, new concerns come from China’s most recent activities at sea. The China Coast Guard (Haijing) resumed its rounds at Viet Nam’s oil and gas blocks in the South China Sea. This time, it targets Hải Thạch field, where Viet Nam’s commercial production has been going on since 2013. On February 20th, 2021, the Zhaoduan-class ship Haijing 5304 sailed to Vanguard Bank (bãi Tư Chính), and traveled within blocks 05.2 and 05.3 in Viet Nam’s continental shelf. 

By the morning of February 22nd, this Type 054A-frigate-like ship was in Hải Thạch oilfield, only about one nautical mile from the platform at times. Haijing 5304 then approached another Vietnam’s production platform in Lan Tây gasfield as close as less than one nautical mile before anchoring in the southwest of Vanguard bank. Two days later, on February 24th, Haijing 5304 made its second round and approached Lan Tây and Hải Thạch platforms as close as 1–2 nautical miles and only left Vanguard bank for the Luconia shoals the following morning. 

Photo: Haijing 5304’s routes within Viet Nam’s continental shelf on February 20th–25th (Duc Tam/SCSCI/Marine Traffic).

Compared to earlier tracks by China Coast Guard’s vessels such as Haijing 5204 at the beginning of February this year, Haijing 5304’s routes went farther into Viet Nam’s continental shelf. What is probably more unsettling is that it targeted Viet Nam’s long-established production platforms rather than new projects.

In response to questions about the latest China Coast Guard’s activities near Viet Nam’s oilfields, Spokeswoman Lê Thị Thu Hằng of Viet Nam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated on February 25th that Viet Nam’s authorities always monitor events in the South China Sea closely. Hằng maintained that Viet Nam would defend and exercise its sovereignty, sovereignty rights, and jurisdiction in accordance with UNCLOS.

Regarding China’s new SAM site near the border with Viet Nam, Hằng said defense policies of all countries must contribute positively and pragmatically to maintaining peace, stability, collaboration, and development in the region and on the world. 

The spokesperson of Viet Nam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also cited UNCLOS when commenting on recent voyages in the South China Sea by France’s and US naval ships. Hằng expressed Viet Nam’s urge that all countries continue to contribute to peace and stability on the basis of international law in the South China Sea. 

On February 9th, France’s Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly announced that her country had sent the nuclear attack submarine SSN Émeraude, accompanied by the support vessel BSAM Seine, traveling through the South China Sea. Earlier this month, US Navy’s destroyer USS John S. McCain and Nimitz Carrier Strike Group entered the South China Sea to conduct what they consider as regular freedom of navigation operations. 

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Trinh-Don Nguyen (Nguyễn Trịnh Đôn) is a Canada-based member of the South China Sea Chronicle Initiative.

The South China Sea Chronicle Initiative is a non-profit, independent project initiated by Vietnamese-origin researchers to compile facts and systematic studies about the South China Sea disputes. Our goal in chronicling events in the South China Sea, both in the past and at present, is to better understand the origins of and hence to promote a peaceful solution to the disputes in the interest of peace, stability and development in the region and the world.

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