China Lands Two More Planes in Disputed South China Sea Following Outcry

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Subi Reef, South China Sea (DigitalGlobe via Getty Images)

Chinese state news outlet Xinhua is reporting that the government has landed two more planes on a landing strip illegally constructed in the Spratly Islands of the South China Sea, days after Vietnam and the Philippines filed a formal complaint over a similar incident.

The incident took place on a fully constructed landing strip on Fiery Cross Reef, upon which the Chinese government built an artificial island. According to Xinhua, “two civilian aircraft took off from the Meilan Airport of Haikou, capital of Hainan Province and landed at the airfield on Yongshu Jiao in the Nansha Islands at 10:21 a.m. ad 10:46 a.m. respectively. They flew back to Haikou on Wednesday afternoon.”

China landed its first plane on that landing strip on Saturday, a move Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States all condemned as a violation of international law. China claims most of the South China Sea as sovereign territory, regions disputed between itself as Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. Japan disputes territory China claims as its own in the East China Sea, and regional actors like Indonesia have expressed concern that China will soon unilaterally expand its borders into their territory.

In an editorial, Xinhua described the plane landings as “nothing more than an effort by the country to better serve the needs of the great many vessels and seafarers using one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.” Calling for “a break from the mindset of geographical competition,” Xinhua makes the claim that, had China had control of these territories earlier and begun constructing aircraft facilities there, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 would have been found sooner. “A land base like Yongshu Jiao [Fiery Cross Reef] could have significantly reduced the time it took the rescuers to arrive there, experts say.” The article does not specify which experts have said this.

Reuters notes the Fiery Cross landing strip is large – 10,000 feet long – and it is but one of a series of up to four landing strips China hopes to construct in the region, despite international maritime law prohibiting such action.

“Vietnam resolutely protests China’s above-mentioned action, asking China to immediately end while not repeating similar move,” the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry said of China’s flight on Saturday, demanding China cease “serious infringement of the sovereignty of Vietnam.” The Philippines, which also claims the Spratly Islands, also contested the flight; Vietnam and the Philippines have not had significant conflict with each other regarding the islands, and have generally allowed their citizens to use fishing grounds there unimpeded. Vietnam has maintained a small landing strip in the Spratly Islands for some time without incident.

Over the weekend, Vietnam also accused China of ramming into a civilian Vietnamese ship and sinking it, a claim that China has not responded to.

The United States has also condemned China’s actions in the region. “To begin flight operations at this new airfield in a disputed area raises tensions and threatens regional stability,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said this week. China has repeatedly protested the presence of American ships in the South China Sea, particularly the Navy guided missile destroyer USS Lassen, which sailed through disputed territory in October.


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