BEIJING: China has for the first time landed a military plane on one of its artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea, upping the ante amidst a raging territorial row with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines.
State media said an air force landed on the Fiery Cross Reef yesterday and evacuated three injured workers. China turned Fiery Cross Reef into an artificial island through a massive dredging operation, and constructed buildings and an air strip in the strategically vital sea.
It is said to be the first time China’s military has publicly admitted to landing a plane on the artificial island in the resource-rich South China Sea.
China and several of its neighbours are locked in a territorial dispute over the South China Sea, which Beijing claims almost in its entirety.
The military plane landed yesterday morning to pick up three construction workers who were hurt, and flew them to Hainan island for treatment, state media said.
China has previously landed civilians planes on Fiery Cross Reef, sparking criticism from Vietnam, who also claims the territory, and the US. Beijing says it is building artificial islands and structures on reefs for civilian purposes, but other countries have expressed concern over the possibility of the facilities being used for military purposes.
The US has said China’s island-building activities aggravates regional tensions and prevents vessels from navigating freely though the area.
China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei all claim areas within the South China Sea.
The news of the Chinese military plane’s landing comes just days after US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visited a warship ‘USS John C Stennis’ close to flashpoint waters, after announcing joint naval patrols with the Philippines.
On the day of Carter’s trip, Beijing said that one of its top military officials had visited a South China Sea island.
Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, observed building work, the defence ministry said, without giving a precise date or location for the visit.
Rival countries have wrangled over territory in the South China Sea for centuries, but tension has steadily increased in recent years.
In February, China had deployed surface-to-air missiles on another disputed island, called Woody or Yongxing Island, in the Paracels. China responded by saying that the US was militarising the South China Sea through its air and naval patrols.
The US, which officially takes no position on the territorial disputes, describes the patrols as “freedom of navigation” operations to ensure access to key shipping and air routes.