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, Reuters reports exclusively.
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 November 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 vulnerability."
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 comment.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular press briefing on Friday, December 9 that China had "indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha islands, including Riji reef", using Beijing's terms for the Spratlys and Ladd Reef.
"We urge the relevant countries to respect China's sovereignty and rights, end their illegal occupation and illegal operations, and not take any actions that may complicate the situation," he said.