China lands first military plane on disputed reef in South China Sea: State media

Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol at Fiery Cross Reef, in Nansha Islands on Feb 9, 2016.
Soldiers of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy patrol at Fiery Cross Reef, in Nansha Islands on Feb 9, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - Beijing landed a military plane on a disputed South China Sea reef it has built up into an artificial island, state media said on Monday (April 18), in the first official confirmation of such a flight.

An air force plane landed on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratlys archipelago on Sunday to evacuate sick workers, the official People's Liberation Army Daily said.

China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, even waters close to its South-east 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 3,000m runway on the reef, which is around 1,000km from its island province of Hainan.

Beijing in January carried out several of what it called civilian flights to Fiery Cross, enraging Hanoi.

This weekend's flight came just days after US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter visited a warship 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.

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.