While over the last several months, tensions over the South China Sea territorial dispute have mostly focused on the diplomatic war of words between China and the US, Reuters reports that in a move that is likely to substantially "raise tensions with Beijing", Vietnam has secretly fortified several of its islands in the disputed territory with Israeli-made EXTRA mobile rocket launchers 'capable of striking China's runways and military installations across the vital trade route."
The launchers have been hidden from aerial surveillance and they have yet to be armed, but could be made operational with rocket artillery rounds within two or three days, Reuters notes adding that intelligence shows Hanoi has shipped the launchers from the Vietnamese mainland into position on five bases in the Spratly islands in recent months
The move, which analysts say "is the most significant defensive move Vietnam has made on its holdings in the South China Sea in decades", is designed to counter China's build-up on its seven reclaimed islands in the Spratlys archipelago. Vietnam's military strategists fear the building runways, radars and other military installations on those holdings have left Vietnam's southern and island defenses increasingly vulnerable.
Vietnam's Deputy Defence Minister, Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, told Reuters that it has reserved the right to take any such measures. "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," he said.
Hanoi is "discretely" putting the launchers in place as it expected tensions to rise in the wake of the landmark international court ruling against China in an arbitration case brought by the Philippines, foreign envoys said. The ruling last month, stridently rejected by Beijing, found no legal basis to China's sweeping historic claims to much of the South China Sea. Vietnam, China and Taiwan claim all of the Spratlys while the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei claim some of the area.
As reported before, China has rejected the arbitration ruling saying that it has "indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly islands and nearby waters," China’s Foreign Ministry said in a faxed statement on Wednesday. "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 United States is also monitoring developments closely. "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," a State Department official said.
Vietnam sourced the rockets from Israel: "Foreign officials and military analysts believe the launchers form part of Vietnam's state-of-art EXTRA rocket artillery system recently acquired from Israel." More details on the rockets:
EXTRA rounds are highly accurate up to a range of 150 km (93 miles), with different 150 kg (330 lb) warheads that can carry high explosives or bomblets to attack multiple targets simultaneously. Operated with targeting drones, they could strike both ships and land targets. That puts China's 3,000-metre runways and installations on Subi, Fiery Cross and Mischief Reef within range of many of Vietnam's tightly clustered holdings on 21 islands and reefs.
While Vietnam has larger and longer range Russian coastal defense missiles, the EXTRA is considered highly mobile and effective against amphibious landings. It uses compact radars, so does not require a large operational footprint - also suitable for deployment on islets and reefs.
"When Vietnam acquired the EXTRA system, it was always thought that it would be deployed on the Spratlys...it is the perfect weapon for that," said Siemon Wezeman, a senior arms researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). There is no sign the launchers have been recently test fired or moved.
There is much more on the technical background of the rockets on the IMI-Israel website.
Vietnam's concern is understandable: China took its first Spratlys possessions after a sea battle against Vietnam's then weak navy in 1988. After the battle, Vietnam said 64 soldiers with little protection were killed as they tried to protect a flag on South Johnson reef - an incident still acutely felt in Hanoi. In recent years, Vietnam has significantly improved its naval capabilities as part of a broader military modernization, including buying six advanced Kilo submarines from Russia.
Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam's military at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said the deployment showed the seriousness of Vietnam's determination to militarily deter China as far as possible.
"China's runways and military installations in the Spratlys are a direct challenge to Vietnam, particularly in their southern waters and skies, and they are showing they are prepared to respond to that threat," he said. "China is unlikely to see this as purely defensive, and it could mark a new stage of militarization of the Spratlys."
Cited by Reuters, Trevor Hollingsbee, a former naval intelligence analyst with the British defense ministry, said he believed the deployment also had a political factor, partly undermining the fear created by the prospect of large Chinese bases deep in maritime Southeast Asia. "It introduces a potential vulnerability where they was none before - it is a sudden new complication in an arena that China was dominating," he said.
And now that China has a "credible" reason to further build up its military on the various reefs and inslands in the contested territory, it will do just that, making the likelihood of an all out military conflict, whether intentional or accidental, that much higher, further rising the possibility of an armed conflict in the region involving not just the Pacific Rim nations, but the US on one side, and Russia - as documented previously - on China's. We hope that we will never have to find out if such a conflict could serve as the progenitor to another global war.