China for the first time landed a plane on an artificial island it has built in a contested part of the strategic South China Sea, prompting Vietnam to accuse Beijing of “serious infringement” of its sovereignty.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China conducted a “test flight” to check whether the newly-built airfield facilities met the standards for civil aviation.
A civilian “test flight” landed on Fiery Cross reef of the South China Sea (SCS) which China calls Yongshu Jiao. There were, however, no details given about when it was conducted.
Hua said the test flight was civilian in nature and added that the “relevant activity falls completely within China’s sovereignty” dismissing Vietnam’s protests.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters. China will not accept the unfounded accusation from the Vietnamese side,” she said, referring to the Spratly Islands by their Chinese name.
The South China Sea is rich in natural resources. It is also a major shipping lane. Over half of the world’s commercial shipping passes through the Indo-Pacific waterways including one-third of the world’s liquefied natural gas.
China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea, resulting in overlapping claims with several other Asian nations like Vietnam and the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
They accuse China of illegally reclaiming land in contested areas to create artificial islands with facilities that could potentially be for military use.
The Vietnamese foreign ministry said the airfield was built illegally on a part of the Spratly archipelago that lies within its territory.
In Hanoi, the foreign ministry said it has handed a protest note to China’s embassy and asked Beijing not to repeat the action.
It described the flight “a serious infringement of the sovereignty of Vietnam on the Spratly archipelago”.