China plans military test flights to Spratlys airstrip

HONG KONG • China will soon conduct military test flights to its new airstrip in the disputed territory in the South China Sea, the South China Morning Post, quoting a retired major-general in the People's Liberation Army, reported yesterday.

Retired Maj-Gen Xu Guangyu said the military flights would probably take place in the first half of the year. He said the airport would mostly serve civilian purposes, such as rescue work and the transport of goods, but it could also be used by military aircraft to patrol the South China Sea.

Airports serving civil aircraft often meet more stringent requirements than those that serve military planes. So, the fact that civil flights had already tested the runway on Fiery Cross Reef meant it also qualified for military use, said Maj-Gen Xu.

The facility's 3,000m-long runway made it suitable for fighter planes, bomb carriers, scout planes and helicopters, he added.

China, which lays claim to almost all of the resource-rich waters in the South China Sea, has already sent three civilian aircraft to land on the runway since Saturday. The move prompted strong criticism from Vietnam and the Philippines which, along with Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan, have also claimed territory in the waterway.

Allowing civil aircraft on the reef was vital to developing and safeguarding islands in the South China Sea as they helped provide supplies to troops stationed there, according to Maj-Gen Xu.

He said he expected hospitals, warehouses and other facilities to be built in the central part of the region soon.

Xinhua quoted a top civil aviation official as saying the airport on Fiery Cross Reef, called Yongshu Jiao by the Chinese, met all requirements and could accommodate large and medium-sized aircraft

"The airport will serve as an aviation hub in the Nansha Islands and will offer convenience for goods and personnel transportation, and emergency medical care in Yongshu Jiao and adjacent areas," said the deputy head of the Chinese Civil Aviation Administration's aviation standards department, Mr Yang Honghai. The Chinese refer to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea as Nansha.

Chinese government agencies - including those covering fishing, maritime affairs, search and rescue, scientific research, and environmental protection - will be set up on the reef, the Xinhua report said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2016, with the headline 'China plans military test flights to Spratlys airstrip'. Print Edition | Subscribe