China has increased military presence in the South China Sea (SCS).The Red Army recently deployed a rocket launcher in disputed Fiery Cross Reef. The Chinese state-run media reported over the weekend that Beijing made the move in order to counter the Vietnamese aggression. However, the Chinese government clarified that the military infrastructure was built on the island of SCS not for aggression, but for self defence.

China has disputes over its maritime boundary with almost all the countries surrounding the SCS. The Asian giant has started sending troops to Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands, which are controlled (and occupied) by China. These groups of islands, reefs, banks and other maritime features in the SCS are also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam.

Delivering a judgement, the Permanent Court of Arbitration once said that Beijing has ‘no historic rights’ over Spratly and Paracel, as they are not actually islands, but are rocky areas or walls in the sea. In spite of the UN tribunal’s verdict, China refused to stop the construction work of man-made islands in controversial areas and developed military infrastructure. Taking a further step forward, Beijing announced that it deployed Rocket Launcher Defence System on Spratly Islands.

Although China, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan claim that they have historic rights over Spratly Islands, the dispute between the Chinese and the Vietnamese has intensified in recent times. On May 19, Beijing accused Hanoi of triggering tension in the region that prompted the Asian giant to deploy the rocket launcher defence system in SCS. The Chinese defence officials fear that the Vietnamese Army’s combat divers may attack Spratly Islands. They have claimed the rocket launchers have been designed to stop the Vietnamese combat divers. According to the Chinese officials, the system – deployed on Spratly Islands – is very much efficient and it could easily identify the combat divers (specialised in launching secret attacks) and eliminate them.

Meanwhile, Dang Cong Ngu, the retired 63-year-old Governor of disputed Paracel Islands who ruled the SCS archipelago for Vietnam for five years, has strongly criticised China for deploying the Rocket Launcher Defence System in the Spratly Islands, saying: “We must fight to bring the territory back to the motherland. All Vietnamese, regardless of ethnicity, living inside or outside the country, know that’s the right thing to do.” The senior Vietnamese official’s tough stance underscores why China-Vietnam territorial disputes are a sensitive issue.

Koushik Das, based in the Indian capital of New Delhi, is a senior news editor with more than 15 years of experience. He also runs a blog - Boundless Ocean of Politics. E-Mail: [email protected]