(Adds U.S. State Department comment, paragraphs 17-18)
* Satellite pictures show new channel on Ladd Reef in
* Vietnam has been building up its holdings in disputed
* Other images show damage to reclamation on Chinese-held
By Lincoln Feast and Greg Torode
SYDNEY/HONG KONG, Dec 8 Vietnam has begun
dredging work on a disputed reef in the South China Sea,
satellite imagery shows, the latest move by the Communist state
to bolster its claims in the strategic waterway.
Activity visible on Ladd Reef in the Spratly Islands could
anger Hanoi's main South China Sea rival, Beijing, which claims
sovereignty over the group and most of the resource-rich sea.
Ladd Reef, on the southwestern fringe of the Spratlys, is
completely submerged at high tide but has a lighthouse and an
outpost housing a small contingent of Vietnamese soldiers. The
reef is also claimed by Taiwan.
In an image taken on Nov. 30 and provided by U.S.-based
satellite firm Planet Labs, several vessels can be seen in a
newly dug channel between the lagoon and open sea.
While the purpose of the activity cannot be determined for
certain, analysts say similar dredging work has been the
precursor to more extensive construction on other reefs.
"We can see that, in this environment, Vietnam's strategic
mistrust is total ... and they are rapidly improving their
defences," said Trevor Hollingsbee, a retired naval intelligence
analyst with Britain's defence ministry.
"They're doing everything they can to fix any
vulnerabilities - and that outpost at Ladd Reef does look a
Reuters reported in August that Vietnam had fortified
several islands with mobile rocket artillery launchers capable
of striking China's holdings across the vital trade route.
Vietnam's foreign ministry did not respond to a request for
The vessels at Ladd Reef cannot be identified in the images,
but Vietnam would be extremely unlikely to allow another country
to challenge its control of the reef.
Greg Poling, a South China Sea expert at Washington's Center
for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said it remained
unclear how far the work on Ladd Reef would go. Rather than a
reclamation and a base, it could be an attempt to simply boost
access for supply ships and fishing boats.
Ladd could also theoretically play a role in helping to
defend Vietnam's nearby holding of Spratly Island, where a
runway is being improved and new hangars built, he said.
"Vietnam's knows it can't compete with China but it does
want to improve its ability to keep an eye on them," Poling
Vietnam has long been fearful of renewed Chinese military
action to drive it off its 21 holdings in the Spratlys - worries
that have escalated amid Beijing's build-up and its anger at the
recent Philippines legal action challenging its claims.
China occupied its first Spratlys possessions after a sea
battle against Vietnam's then-weak navy in 1988. Vietnam said 64
soldiers were killed as they tried to protect a flag on South
Johnson reef - an incident still acutely felt in Hanoi.
The United States has repeatedly called on claimants to
avoid actions that increase tensions in the South China Sea,
through which some $5 trillion in world trade is shipped every
A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Anna
Richey-Allen, said it was aware of reports of reclamation work
by Vietnam and said the United States regularly raised concerns
about such activity by claimants.
"We've consistently warned that reclamation and
militarization in contested areas of the South China Sea will
risk driving a destabilizing and escalatory trend," she said.
"We encourage all claimants to take steps to lower tensions and
peacefully resolve differences."
Vietnam has emerged as China's main rival in the South China
Sea, actively asserting sovereignty over both the Paracel and
the Spratly groupings in their entirety and undergoing its own
naval modernisation. Taiwan also claims both, but its position
is historically aligned with Beijing's.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, run by the CSIS,
says Vietnam has added about 120 acres (49 hectares) of land to
its South China Sea holdings in recent years.
Regional military attaches say Vietnam's key holdings are
well fortified, some with tunnels and bunkers, appearing geared
to deterring easy invasion.
Vietnam's reclamation work remains modest by Chinese
The United States, which has criticised China for
militarising the waterway, estimates Beijing has added more than
3,200 acres (1,300 hectares) of land on seven features in the
South China Sea over the past three years, building runways,
ports, aircraft hangars and communications equipment.
Beijing says it is entitled to "limited and necessary
self-defensive facilities" on its territory and has reacted
angrily to "freedom of navigation" operations by U.S. warships
near Chinese-held islands.
CHINESE RECLAMATION WORK DAMAGED
In another image provided by Planet Labs, reclamation work
in the Chinese-held Paracel Island chain appears to have been
damaged by recent storms.
China began dredging and land filling earlier this year at
North Island, about 12 km (7 miles) north of Woody Island, where
it has a large military base and this year stationed
Satellite images in February and March showed dredging
vessels working to build a 700-metre (2,300 ft) sand bridge
connecting low-lying North Island with neighbouring Middle
But images taken after two powerful storms spun through the
region in October show the narrow sand strip has been largely
The Paracels have been under Chinese control for more than
40 years after a battle towards the end of the Vietnam War, when
Chinese forces removed the then-South Vietnamese navy. Analysts
say they play a key part in protecting China's nuclear armed
submarine fleet on Hainan Island, to the north.
China has not commented publicly on the work at North Island
and the foreign ministry did not respond to requests for
(Additional reporting by Martin Petty in Hanoi, Ben Blanchard
in Beijing and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Alex
Richardson and Leslie Adler)