A Chinese military aircraft has landed at a new airport on an island China built in the disputed South China Sea, state media said on Monday in the first public report on a move that raises the prospect of China basing warplanes there.
The air force plane landed on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratlys archipelago on Sunday to evacuate sick workers, the news report posted online by China’s defence ministry said.
In a front-page story, the People’s Liberation Army Daily said a military aircraft on patrol over the South China Sea received an emergency call to land at Fiery Cross Reef to evacuate three seriously ill workers.
The Global Times tabloid cited a military expert as saying the flight showed the airfield was up to military standards and could see fighter jets based there in the event of war.
The artificial island was built on a disputed South China Sea reef. China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, even waters close to its Southeast Asian neighbours, and has created artificial islands in an effort to assert its claims.
It has significantly expanded Fiery Cross, which is also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, drawing international criticism.
In 2014, China began work on a 3,000-metre runway on the reef, which is around 1,000 km from its island province of Hainan. Beijing in January carried out several of what it called civilian flights to Fiery Cross, enraging Hanoi.
“On the Chinese territory, this kind of thing is not surprising at all,” foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a regular briefing. “It is a good tradition of the People’s Liberation Army to provide a necessary assistance to Chinese people in need.”
The runways would be long enough to handle long-range bombers and transport aircraft as well as China’s best jet fighters, giving it a presence deep in the maritime heart of Southeast Asia that it has lacked until now.
This weekend’s flight came just days after US defense secretary Ashton Carter visited a warship close to flashpoint waters on Friday, after announcing joint naval patrols with the Philippines.
On the day of Carter’s trip, Beijing said 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.
Washington regularly accuses Beijing of militarising the South China Sea, saying it has built runways and deployed weapons to the islands. Beijing denies the accusations and says US patrols have ramped up tensions.
As well as China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims to parts of the sea, which are home to some of the world’s most important shipping lanes and believed to sit atop vast oil reserves.
The US has criticised China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and worries that it plans to use them for military purposes, even though China says it has no hostile intent.