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, foreign officials and analysts said.
China’s increasing military presence in the disputed sea could effectively lead to a Beijing-controlled air defense zone, they said, ratcheting up tensions with other claimants and with the US.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials on Saturday said that a test flight by a civilian plane landed on an artificial island built in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), the first time Beijing has used a runway in the area.
Vietnam launched a formal diplomatic protest while Philippines Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said Manila was planning to do the same.
Both nations have claims to the area that overlap with China and Taiwan.
“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 said.
In Washington, US Department of State spokesman John Kirby on Monday said China’s landing of the plane “raises tensions and threatens regional stability.”
US Senator John McCain, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, criticized US President Barack Obama’s administration for delaying further “freedom of navigation” patrols within 12 nautical miles (22.2km) of the islands built by China.
McCain said that the lack of US action was allowing China to continue to “pursue its territorial ambitions” in the region.
He said the Obama administration was “either unable to manage the complexities of interagency national security decisionmaking or simply too risk averse to do what is necessary to safeguard the rules-based order in the Asia-Pacific.”
China has been building runways on the artificial islands for more than a year, and the plane’s landing was not a surprise.
The runway on Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef, 永暑礁) is 3km long and is one of three China was constructing on artificial islands built up from seven reefs and atolls in the Spratlys.
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.
Chinese officials have repeatedly said that the new islands would be mostly for civilian use.
However, military landings on the islands were now “inevitable,” said Leszek Buszynski, a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre in Canberra.
An air defense zone, while unlikely soon, was feasible and possible in future once China builds up its air strength, he said.
“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,” he said.
Ian Storey, a South China Sea expert at Singapore’s ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, said he expected tensions to worsen as China used its new facilities to project power deeper into the South China Sea.
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