BEIJING • China has for the first time landed several bombers on an island in the disputed South China Sea, a move that could provoke renewed tensions between countries bordering the strategically vital maritime region.
"A division of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) recently organised multiple bombers such as the H-6K to conduct take-off and landing training on islands and reefs in the South China Sea in order to improve our ability to 'reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions'," it said on Friday.
It said the pilot of an H-6K bomber conducted assault training on a designated sea target and then carried out take-offs and landings at an airport in the area, describing the exercise as preparation for "the West Pacific and the battle for the South China Sea".
The notice, published on the PLAAF's Weibo microblogging account, did not provide the precise location of the exercise.
The move comes weeks after United States network CNBC reported that China had installed anti-ship and air-to-air defences on outposts in the Spratly Islands that are also claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, citing sources close to US intelligence.
Washington warned that Beijing would face unspecified "consequences" over its militarisation of the South China Sea, and said it had raised the issue with China.
"I believe this is the first time a bomber has landed in the #SouthChinaSea," Dr Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, tweeted.
In an analysis published on its website, CSIS said the location of the runway was believed to be Woody Island, China's largest base in the Paracel Islands, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The South China Sea issue has been brewing for years, with China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam making competing claims in waters with vital global shipping routes and thought to have significant oil and gas deposits.
China has engaged in years of land-reclamation efforts on reefs it controls in the region and built both civilian and military facilities in the contested area.
Chinese military facilities include air bases, radar and communications systems, naval facilities and defensive weaponry including landing strips able to accommodate military planes.
The US has dispatched warships to disputed areas of the South China Sea in a bid to challenge China's claims.
"The United States remains committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific," Pentagon spokesman Christopher Logan said.
"We have seen these same reports and China's continued militarisation of disputed features in the South China Sea only serves to raise tensions and destabilise the region."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS