Vietnam dredges on disputed reef in South China Sea
Sand can be seen spilling from a newly dredged channel in this view of Vietnamese-held Ladd Reef, in the Spratly Island group in the South China Sea, November 30, 2016, in this Planet Labs handout photo received by Reuters on December 6, 2016. Reuters

Vietnam has begun dredging work on a reef that is covered with water at high tide, in the disputed South China Sea, according to fresh satellite images, Reuters news service reported. Experts believe that this step could provoke Beijing which claims a vast part of the disputed waterway.

A November 30 commercial satellite image showed activities on Vietnam-controlled Ladd Reef on the southwestern fringe of the Spratly group of islands. Several vessels were found in a carved out embankment on the reef's edge. The image was provided to AFP by US-based Planet Labs, a satellite imaging company on Friday.

However, a July picture from Planet Labs showed no breach to the reef's embankment, suggesting the work began in recent months. Vietnamese officials did not respond to any request for their comment regarding the dredging work.

Last month, a US-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative published a few images that showed Vietnam had extended a runway on a different island in the Spratlys, which is also claimed by China. It had also building hangars capable of hosting military equipment.

Although, Vietnam is believed to start dredging in the jointly claimed part but it is still small-scale compared to Beijing's build-up in the waterway. China constructed several islands that are capable of supporting military facilities.

The intent of such a move on Vietnam's part is till not clear from the released photos. Carl Thayer, a professor at the University of New South Wales said: "Hanoi might be trying to stock up ahead of a code of conduct agreement between various claimants in the South China Sea expected next year".

"Vietnam is moving beyond the status quo," Thayer told AFP.

"My speculation was that if we are moving toward some diplomatic end game at some point in the next year or two, then Vietnam looks like it's trying to get as much as it can before it's prohibited," he added.

According to Thayer, China can "make a meal out of" Vietnam's latest apparent dredging work but the purpose of the work is difficult to decide. He added that it does not appear to be for military purposes or explicitly threaten Beijing.

Both the countries have been going through several conflicts over disputed territory in the sea but in recent times the tensions have eased slightly. However, the issue still remains incendiary on both sides.

Apart from China and Vietnam, the South China Sea is also claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.