VIETNAM is aggressively building permanent structures in the contested West Philippine Sea (WPS) based on a document obtained by The Manila Times titled “Planning of Construction Projects on Pearson Reef and Pigeon Reef in Spratly Islands,” signed by Rear Admiral Tran Thanh Nghiem, commander of the Vietnam People’s Navy, and dated March 27, 2023.
Hizon (Pearson) Reef and Pigeon (Tennent) Reef are among the atolls in the Spratly Islands.
The Philippines, China, Taiwan and Vietnam are also claimants to the reefs. Vietnam claimed possession of Hizon Reef in 1978 and Pigeon Reef in 1988.
The document obtained by The Times said the Vietnamese are now building military installations and civilian residential housing in the area.
In the paper, Vietnam noted that the “complicated and volatile international and regional situations in recent years,” particularly the competing claims of sovereignty by several countries over areas in the South China Sea, have affected its economy and national defense “in multiple ways.”
It added that the potential risks for maritime conflicts in the South China Sea and Spratly Islands increase regional uncertainties.
The Vietnam People’s Navy said the purpose and significance of implementing the Spratly Island Construction Planning is to “improve the management and defense capability of islands, boost the confidence and morale of officials and people in the islands, safeguard islands, continental shelf and the southern petroleum zone.” It noted the strategic location of the atolls for military purposes.
“Through expanding Pearson Reef and Pigeon Reef, building a battle group, we could develop a posture for attack and defense with the ability of mutual support. This is of long-term strategic significance since the control of waterways can be strengthened and military pressure to neighbor countries can be increased,” it said in the document.
The paper said the basis of the construction projects were the concluding comments of the working groups meeting presided over by Chief of General Staff Nguyen Tan Cuong held at the 2nd Conference Room of the Joint General Staff Operation Bureau between the Ministry of National Defense and Vietnam People’s Navy on Spratly Islands construction planning held on April 18, 2021.
The Vietnam People’s Navy inspection group and Ministry of National Defense functional departments conducted a survey in the area from June 3 to 4, 2021.
Decision 1492/QĐ-TTg issued by Vietnamese Prime Minister Phạm Minh Chín on the Master Planning Proposal on Promoting Capabilities to Govern and Defense Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, Continental Shelf and Spratly Islands from 2020-2025 until 2030, the approved Vietnam People’s Navy’s Island Combat Plan, Navy Anti-Strike Plan, as well as the operation plan called “Dawn Support” also laid the groundwork for the island construction projects.
Projects that will be undertaken by Vietnam on Hizon Reef include civil works such as cultural houses, pagoda, reservoir, oil storage tank, desalination unit, wind and solar power systems.
Currently, there are existing military engineering systems on the reef. These include a seaplane apron, Radar Station 44, 685th Brigade middle-range missile fortification, 37 mm anti-aircraft gun fortification, two grenade launcher fortifications, armored tank fortification, SU23 anti-aircraft fortification, recoilless gun fortification, 85 mm artillery fortification, and various trenches and covert fortifications.
However, those military engineering systems cannot meet tactical demands, for they are in a state of disrepair and not functioning well because of the harsh environment.
To satisfy the living and combat readiness training requirements of the troops stationed on the reef, Vietnam plans to continue expanding the island, as well as consolidate and improve military engineering and logistics support services.
Projects lined up include the construction of a serial battle fortification aligned with the island’s defensive combat plan.
Based on the document, Hizon Reef will be continuously expanded to 760,000 square meters, with an expanded area of 19.5 hectares.
In order to complete the construction of the most modern and largest dock of the future in the Spratly Islands, the area of the current dockyard will be increased to 38 hectares by dredging 16.3 hectares to the southwest from the existing base.
The material excavated in the dredging process will be used for the reef’s expansion.
A breakwater with a length of 1,705 meters and a crown height reaching +4.5 meters will be built to protect the areas that are hydraulically reclaimed or newly built.
Two logistics services will also be constructed in the north-western and south-western parts of the dock for the docking of Gepard 3.9 missile frigates and other military vessels with huge drafts.
Vietnam plans to maintain and upgrade its military installations on Hizon Reef, including its Middle-Range Missile Fortification, 85-mm Artillery Fortification, 85-mm Artillery Covert Fortification and 37-mm Antiaircraft Gun.
Vietnam pointed out that the current projects basically meet the requirement of the living and combat readiness training for garrison troops, but with the increase in troops strength on the island, it is necessary to reconstruct and establish some infrastructures such as the military barracks.
The Vietnamese government also plans to build civilian residential housing on Hizon Reef for about 50 households and the necessary infrastructure, including roads, clean energy systems, water supply systems, as well as wastewater and garbage treatment systems.
It will likewise develop on the island a Production Park with “perfect” agriculture and stock farming facilities, aiming to provide food for nearby features, improve local production capacity and economy, as well as strengthen defense security.
Trees will also be planted to improve the environment, serve as blindage and hide the fortifications.
The same projects will also be undertaken on Pigeon Reef, which will be expanded to accommodate wider airport runways for future upgrades to a 2,800-meter-long and 800-meter-wide runway.
Additional mooring buoys and navigational buoys will also be installed on the island.
In addition, a sloping jetty will be constructed for berthing landing craft and seaplanes.
The construction projects on Hizon and Pigeon Reefs will be managed directly by the Navy Command and designed by the Designing Institute of the Ministry of National Defense.
The overall budget for the massive undertaking is 6,425 billion dong (roughly P14.829 million), including 3,745 billion dong (around P8.664 million) for Hizon Reef and 2,680 billion dong (around P6.188 million) for Pigeon Reef.