Vietnam has been undertaking dredging and landfill operations at Barque Canada Reef in the Spratly Islands, increasing its reclaimed area by more than four times in less than a year, according to satellite imagery. As of early November 2023, the total landfill area of the main feature and two smaller ones reached nearly 1 square kilometer, compared to 58 acres at the end of 2022. While these developments indicate ongoing construction, the reef remains significantly smaller than China’s Big Three artificial islands in the South China Sea.
Apart from Barque Canada Reef, Vietnam has been carrying out similar reclamation work on other features in the region, including Pearson Reef, Namyit Reef, Tennent Reef, and Sand Cay. However, despite these efforts, Vietnam’s reclamation activities are still far less extensive than China’s, which created approximately 3,200 acres of land between 2013 and 2016.
Speculation has arisen that Vietnam could be constructing a second airfield on Barque Canada Reef. However, these claims have not been independently verified, with satellite images not explicitly showing evidence of a runway. Currently, Vietnam has one runway on the Spratly Islands, which was expanded several years ago to accommodate medium-sized military aircraft.
The presence of numerous ships and large dredgers at the main feature of Barque Canada Reef supports Vietnam’s emphasis on the development of the area. The reef, covering roughly 50 square kilometers, has significant potential according to Vietnamese military sources. Establishing another base and runway on the reef would provide Vietnam with a strategic location opposite China’s Big Three islands, potentially bolstering its defense capabilities in the disputed waters.
The ongoing expansion of Barque Canada Reef has sparked discussions among Vietnamese netizens, who see the potential for increased defense capabilities, while Chinese netizens describe lost opportunities associated with the reef. Vietnam’s Navy first occupied the reef in 1978 and later established three outposts, which have since become permanent structures with facilities for stationed troops, visiting fishermen, and even a “cultural center.”
In line with promoting sustainable development in the South China Sea, Vietnamese authorities have issued directives for vegetable farming and duck raising on Barque Canada Reef. Additionally, Vietnam currently controls 27 features in the South China Sea, solidifying its position in the Spratlys.