China’s first landing of a plane on one of its new island runways in the South China Sea shows Beijing’s facilities in the disputed region are being completed on schedule and military flights will inevitably follow, Reuters reported, citing foreign officials and analysts.
Its increasing military presence in the disputed sea could effectively lead to a Beijing-controlled air defense zone, the sources told the news agency, ratcheting up tensions with other claimants and with the United States in one of the world’s most volatile areas.
Chinese foreign ministry officials confirmed on Saturday that a test flight by a civilian plane landed on an artificial island built in the Spratlys, the first time Beijing has used a runway in the area.
Vietnam launched a formal diplomatic protest while Philippines Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose said Manila was planning to do the same. Both have claims to the area that overlap with China.
“That’s the fear, that China will be able take control of the South China Sea and it will affect the freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight,” Jose told reporters.
China has been building runways on the artificial islands for over a year.
The runway at the Fiery Cross Reef is 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) long and is one of three China was constructing on artificial islands built up from seven reefs and atolls in the Spratlys archipelago.
The runways would be long enough to handle long-range bombers and transport craft as well as China’s best jet fighters, giving them a presence deep into the maritime heart of Southeast Asia that they have lacked until now.
Work is well underway to complete a range of port, storage and personnel facilities on the new islands, US and regional officials have said.
Fiery Cross is also expected to house advanced early warning radars and military communications facilities, they said.
Chinese officials have repeatedly stressed that the new islands would be mostly for civilian use, such as coast guard activity and fishing research.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at the weekend that the test flight was intended to check whether the runway met civilian aviation standards and fell “completely within China’s sovereignty”.
Leszek Buszynski, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center, said he believed military landings on the islands were now “inevitable”.
An air defense zone, while unlikely soon, was feasible and possible in future once China’s built up its air strength.
“The next step will be, once they’ve tested it with several flights, they will bring down some of their fighter air power – SU-27s and SU-33′s – and they will station them there permanently. That’s what they’re likely to do,” Buszynski said.
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