BEIJING • A Chinese military aircraft has landed at a new airport on an island which China has built in the disputed South China Sea, state media said yesterday, in the first public report on a move that raises the prospect of China basing warplanes there.
The United States has criticised China's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and worries that it plans to use them for military purposes, even though China said it has no hostile intent.
The runway on Fiery Cross Reef is 3,000m long and is one of three China has been building for over a year by dredging sand up onto reefs and atolls in the Spratly archipelago.
Civilian flights began test runs there in January. Fiery Cross Reef, known as Yongshu Jiao in Chinese, is around 1,000km from China's island province of Hainan.
In a front-page story, the official People's Liberation Army Daily said a military aircraft on patrol over the South China Sea on Sunday received an emergency call to land at Fiery Cross Reef to evacuate three seriously ill workers.
They were then taken in the transport aircraft back to Hainan island for treatment, it said, showing a picture of the aircraft on the ground in Hainan.
It was the first time China's military had publicly admitted landing an aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef, said the Global Times newspaper.
It cited a military expert as saying the flight showed the airfield was up to military standards. "Once fighter jets are stationed there, it means control of airspace within a 500km radius is safeguarded," Mr Wang Yanan, managing editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, was quoted as saying.
The runways would be long enough to handle long-range bombers and transport aircraft as well as China's best jet fighters, giving it a presence deep in the maritime heart of South-east Asia which it has lacked until now.
The 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.
Over US$5 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) of world trade is shipped through the South China Sea every year.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims in the area.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE