The status of China’s artificial islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea hit a new milestone on Saturday. China landed a civilian aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef, drawing a sharp reaction from the Vietnamese government. Le Hai Binh, a spokesperson for the Vietnamese foreign ministry, said that a Chinese aircraft had landed on the 3000 meter airstrip on Fiery Cross Reef. He added that the strip had been “built illegally on Fiery Cross Reef, which is part of Vietnam’s Spratlys.” Vietnam, along with China, Taiwan, and Malaysia, claims Fiery Cross Reef, which has seen extensive land reclamation and construction work since last year. China has occupied the reef since 1988.
Binh continued that the move represented “a serious infringement of the sovereignty of Vietnam on the Spratly archipelago, contrary to the common perception of high-ranking leaders of the two countries and [to] an agreement on the basic principles for directly solving maritime issues between Vietnam and China.” He additionally noted that the Vietnamese government had filed a formal protest with the Chinese embassy, requesting that China refrain from staging another landing on the disputed island.
Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, clarified the nature of the landing. According to Hua, “the Chinese government conducted a test flight to the airport with a civil aircraft in order to test whether or not the facilities on it meet the standards for civil aviation.” She added that the “relevant activity falls completely within China’s sovereignty.”
“The Chinese side will not accept the unfounded accusation from the Vietnamese side,” she continued. This latest spat between Vietnam and China comes nearly two months after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hanoi in November 2015, attempting to reset ties between the two neighbors. Ties between Vietnam and China have been strained over disputes in the South China Sea. In May 2014, a major crisis involving a Chinese oil rig near the Paracel Islands triggered a steep decline in bilateral ties and led to widespread anti-China protests in Vietnam.
Fiery Cross Reef is one of seven disputed features in the Spratly archipelago where China has built artificial islands and constructed various civilian and military structures. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which has tracked Chinese construction and reclamation activities in the Spratlys through the use of satellite imagery, China has reclaimed 2.7 million square meters of area on Fiery Cross Reef.
As IHS Jane’s 360 reported in early 2015, the 3000 meter airstrip at Fiery Cross was the first to be constructed by China on these features. The length of the airstrip on Fiery Cross was of particular concern to observers in the region and in the United States as it suggested planned military use. As Jane‘s noted at the time, the specifications of the airstrip are “well within the parameters of existing People’s Liberation Army Air Force runways on mainland China, which vary in length from about 2,700 m to 4,000 m at most.” It isn’t immediately clear from either the Vietnamese or Chinese foreign ministry statements if the civilian aircraft that landed on Fiery Cross Reef on Saturday was comparable in size to a large military aircraft, such as a long-range bomber.
AMTI notes a range of other structures and facilities at Fiery Cross that suggest the artificial island can potentially serve as a major power-projection node for China in the South China Sea. Satellite imagery reveals a 630,000 square meter harbor–large enough to host large warships and tankers–anti-air weaponry, two helipads, two lighthouses, and satellite communication antennas. AMTI also notes that China may be constructing a new radar tower and possible gun emplacements at Fiery Cross Reef.