08/10/2016, 17.19
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Hanoi deploys defensive system on disputed islands in South China Sea

The missile deployment, which could hit Chinese positions and installations in the region, is a response to Beijing's imperialist policy in the seas. For experts, this could lead to the "militarisation" of the area. Tensions are also rising between Beijing and Tokyo over the East China Sea. Japan denounces a series of incursions by Chinese boats.

Hanoi (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Vietnam has taken defensive measures on several of its islands in the disputed South China Sea with new mobile rocket launchers capable of striking China’s runways and military installations, across the vital maritime trade route.

Diplomats and military officers said that intelligence shows that Hanoi has shipped the launchers from the Vietnamese mainland into position on five bases in the Spratly Islands in recent months, a move likely to raise tensions with its former Chinese (Communist) ally.

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.  

The launchers form part of Vietnam’s state-of-art EXTRA rocket artillery system recently acquired from Israel.

EXTRA rounds are highly accurate up to a range of 150km, with different 150kg warheads that can carry high explosives or bomblets to attack multiple targets simultaneously.

When asked about the issue, Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry said the information was “inaccurate”, without elaborating.

Deputy Defence Minister, Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, said in June that Hanoi had no such launchers or weapons ready in the Spratlys but noted, “It is within our legitimate right to self-defence to move any of our weapons to any area at any time within our sovereign territory”.

Vietnam’s missile installations are a response to Beijing’s recent imperialist policy in the seas of the Asia-Pacific region. A dispute with the Philippines is currently before the Court of Arbitration. The latter dismisses Chinese claims.

Hanoi’s retooling of its defence system also stems from fears that the verdict could further raise tensions in the South China Sea.

Carl Thayer, an expert on Vietnam’s military at the Australian Defence Force Academy, said “China is unlikely to see this as purely defensive, and it could mark a new stage of militarisation of the Spratlys.”

Disputes are likely to deteriorate bilateral and multilateral relations between China and the region’s nations, as well as undermine the unity of the ten-member ASEAN block.

The latter includes nations that oppose Chinese policy (Vietnam) or seek to reboot relations (Philippines after the court decision), as well as some of China’s traditional allies (Laos and Cambodia).

On 24 July, an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting ended without word about the court’s decision. Several experts doubt that any unified front could emerge in light of Beijing’s divide and rule strategy.

Meanwhile, tensions are also rising between Tokyo and Beijing in the East China Sea, with the Japanese government pointing the finger at the Chinese navy for entering Japanese territorial waters.

This has led Japan's Foreign Minister to warn that ties with China are "significantly deteriorating". Fumio Kishida said he had called China's ambassador to protest against the "incursions".

The Japan-controlled, uninhabited islands – known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China – are the source of a long-running dispute.

On Friday, about 230 Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels sailed near islands claimed by both countries.

The Japanese coast guard said on Monday that about 13 Chinese coast guard ships, some of them armed, had been seen near the islands, higher than the usual number.

"We cannot accept that [China] is taking actions that unilaterally raise tensions,” Mr Kishida said.

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