After runway test, China military flights are expected | Global News

After runway test, China military flights are expected

12:37 AM January 06, 2016

HONG KONG/BEIJING—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, according to foreign officials and analysts.

China’s increasing military presence in the disputed sea could effectively lead to a Beijing-controlled air defense identification zone, they said, ratcheting up tensions with other claimants and with the United States in one of the world’s most volatile areas.

China has confirmed 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, which said the Chinese plane landed on Jan. 2, has launched a formal diplomatic protest. In Manila, Assistant Foreign Secretary Charles Jose said the Philippine government was planning to do the same. Both Vietnam and the Philippines 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, the spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, told reporters.

In Washington, a spokesperson for the US state department, reiterated a US call for a halt to land reclamation and militarization of outposts in those waters, where China and five other Asian governments have competing territorial claims.

Tensions have risen in the last two years after China transformed disputed reefs in the Spratly Island chain into islands that rival claimants fear Beijing could use to project its military might far from the Chinese mainland and threaten their territories.

“To begin flight operations at this new airfield in a disputed area raises tensions and threatens regional stability,” John Kirby, the state department’s spokesperson, told reporters in Washington.

Kirby said claimants should instead focus on reaching agreement on acceptable behavior in disputed areas.

“We have made this case clear repeatedly, and we will continue to make it,” he said.


Sen. John McCain, the chair of the influential US Senate armed services committee, criticized the Obama administration for delaying further “freedom of navigation” patrols within 22.2 kilometers (12 nautical miles) of the islands built by China.

The runway on Fiery Cross Reef is 3,000 meters long. It is one of three runways that China has constructed on artificial islands built up from seven reefs and atolls in the Spratlys archipelago. Manila calls the reef Kagitingan, Hanoi refers to it as Da Chu Thap, and Beijing calls it Yongshu Jiao.

The runways are 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.

Chinese officials have repeatedly stressed that the new islands would be mostly for civilian use, such as Coast Guard activity and fishing research.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, 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.”

Asked about McCain’s remarks on Tuesday, Hua said: “We hope the US can take an objective and fair attitude, and not make statements that confuse the situation and are harmful to regional peace and stability.”

Military landings on the artificial islands were now “inevitable,” said Leszek Buszynski, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defense Studies Center.

“The next step will be, once they’ve tested (the runways) with several flights, they will bring down some of their fighter air power —SU-27 and SU-33—and they will station them there permanently. That’s what they’re likely to do,” Buszynski added.

Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Yusof Ishak Institute, said he expected tensions to escalate as China used its new facilities to project power deeper into the South China Sea.

Even if China stopped short of formally declaring an air defense identification zone, Beijing’s need to protect its new airstrips and other facilities could see it effectively operating one.

Work is well underway to complete a range of port, storage and personnel facilities on the new islands, according to US and regional officials.

Fiery Cross Reef is also expected to house advanced early warning radars and military communications facilities, they said.

“As these facilities become operational, Chinese warnings to both military and civilian aircraft will become routine,” Storey said.

“These events are a precursor to an air defense identification zone, or an undeclared but de facto zone, and one has to expect tensions to rise,” he added.

China sparked condemnation from the United States and Japan in late 2013 when it declared an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea, covering uninhabited islands disputed with Tokyo.

Hua, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said on Monday that there were no immediate plans for an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea.

However, regional military officials say they have been logging increased warnings to aircraft from Chinese radio operators, including some from ground stations on Fiery Cross Reef.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of world trade ships every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have rival claims.

The United States, which has no claim in the South China Sea but has been highly critical of China’s assertiveness, has vowed to protect freedom of navigation in the strategic waterway.

Senator McCain said that the lack of US action after a US Navy patrol near the islands last October was allowing China “to pursue its territorial ambitions” in the region.

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US officials remain committed to carrying out further “freedom of navigation” patrols near the disputed islands, but they are still debating the timing of another patrol, said one US defense official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. Reports from the wires

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TAGS: China, Features, Global Nation, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea

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