A Chinese military aircraft made the first public landing on a disputed island in the South China Sea Sunday, state media reported Monday, raising concerns that Beijing could base fighter jets there. The aircraft, which was patrolling over the islands claimed by China, reportedly made an emergency landing on the Fiery Cross Reef to evacuate three seriously ill workers.
According to China's official People's Liberation Army Daily, the aircraft was sent by the navy after they received an emergency call from the construction site on the reef. The United States has criticized China's construction of artificial islands in disputed waters, through which about $5 trillion of maritime trade passes every year. Pentagon believes China, which claims most of the South China Sea, aims to use the constructions for military purposes.
This was the first time China admitted landing a military plane since the airport was reportedly completed in January, when a civilian aircraft carried out flight tests. Wang Yanan, managing editor of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, was quoted as saying by Global Times that the Y-8 patrol aircraft's landing proved that the reef’s airport and runways were ready for military use.
According to Reuters, the runways may be capable of handling long-range bombers and transport aircraft, as well as China's best jet fighters.
China, which has built three runways on the Spratly archipelago, has consistently defended its actions, saying it does not intend to start a conflict and that its aircraft facilities will maintain safety in the region.
On Sunday, the People's Liberation Army Daily reported that China's fleets in the disputed waters have conducted training drills with upgraded methods that are similar to actual combat conditions aimed at increasing combat effectiveness.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have also staked claim to various parts of the South China Sea.