Vietnam has discreetly fortified 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 trade route, Western officials told Reuters Wednesday.
Diplomats and military officers told Reuters that surveillance indicates that Hanoi has shipped the launchers from the Vietnamese mainland to five bases in the Spratly islands in recent months.
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, according to the three sources.
Vietnam's Foreign Ministry said the information was "inaccurate," without elaborating.
Deputy Defense Minister, Senior Lieutenant-General Nguyen Chi Vinh, told Reuters in Singapore in June that Hanoi had no such launchers or weapons ready in the Spratlys but 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.
Foreign officials and military analysts believe the launchers form part of Vietnam's state-of-the-art EXTRA rocket artillery system recently acquired from Israel, which have a range of 93 miles and carry 150 kilogram warheads that can attack multiple targets at once.
Hanoi wanted to have 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, Reuters reported on Wednesday.
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.
China took its first Spratlys possessions after a sea battle against Vietnam's then weak navy in 1988.
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.
The move comes amid growing global military tensions between the East and West, and their proxy states. Earlier this year, NATO and the U.S. began deploying munitions and three combat brigades — about 14,000 troops — in several countries that border Russia, and Washington has more than quadrupled its military spending in the region.
“NATO has begun preparations for escalating from a Cold War into a hot one,” former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told the Interfax news agency last month.