China starts passenger flights to disputed island

BEIJING • China began daily civilian charter flights to Woody Island in the contested South China Sea, in a move likely to raise regional tensions.

A passenger plane took off at Meilan Airport in Haikou, the capital of Hainan province, and landed at the airport on Yongxing at 10.20am yesterday, Xinhua news agency reported, using the Chinese name for the island in the Paracel chain.

The plane was scheduled to fly back to Haikou yesterday afternoon, it said.

The flight marked the start of a daily return charter business flight "to improve the work and living conditions of the city's public servants and stationed soldiers", added Xinhua.

Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the strategically vital South China Sea, despite rival claims from South-east Asian neighbours. It has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.

It landed its first passenger plane in Sansha city on Woody Island in the contested Paracels, where Vietnam and Taiwan both have rival claims.

China established Sansha by unilaterally awarding it 2 million sq km of sea in 2012 and declaring it the country's largest city.

The Asian giant hopes to turn the area around Woody Island into a "major tourist attraction comparable to the Maldives", the state-run China Daily said in May.

China has encouraged patriotic citizens to visit the Paracel Islands, known as Xisha in Chinese.

Chinese tourists have been allowed to travel to non-militarised areas of the South China Sea since 2013, but foreign passport holders are not allowed to join the trips.

In June, the Chinese authorities announced a new proposal that seeks to develop tourist routes to the disputed Spratlys, located further south, by 2020.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2016, with the headline 'China starts passenger flights to disputed island'. Print Edition | Subscribe