The Vietnamese foreign ministry called the decision a “serious attack” on its sovereignty.
The status of China’s man-made islands in the disputed Spratly Archipelago in the South China Sea took another step forward on Saturday. China landed a civilian plane on Fiery Cross Reef, prompting a strong reaction from the Vietnamese government. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said a Chinese plane landed on the 3,000-meter airstrip at Fiery Cross Reef. He added that the strip was “illegally built on Fiery Cross Reef, which is part of the Spratlys of Vietnam”. Vietnam, along with China, Taiwan and Malaysia, claim Fiery Cross Reef, which has seen significant land reclamation and construction work since last year. China has occupied the reef since 1988.
Binh continued that this decision represented “a serious attack on Vietnam’s sovereignty over the Spratly Archipelago, contrary to the common perception of the senior leaders of the two countries and [to] an agreement on the basic principles to directly solve maritime problems between Vietnam and China. He further noted that the Vietnamese government had lodged a formal protest with the Chinese embassy, ââasking China to refrain from organizing another landing on the disputed island.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying clarified the nature of the landing. According to Hua, “the Chinese government carried out a test flight to the airport with a civilian aircraft to verify whether or not the facilities meet civil aviation standards.” She added that “the activity concerned is entirely within the sovereignty of China.”
“The Chinese side will not accept the unfounded accusation of the Vietnamese side,” she continued. This latest quarrel between Vietnam and China comes nearly two months after Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Hanoi in November 2015, in an attempt to reestablish ties between the two neighbors. Relations between Vietnam and China have been strained due to disputes in the South China Sea. In May 2014, a major crisis involving a Chinese oil rig near the Paracel Islands triggered a sharp decline in bilateral relations and led to widespread anti-China protests in Vietnam.
Fiery Cross Reef is one of the seven disputed features of the Spratly Archipelago where China has built man-made islands and constructed various civil and military structures. According to Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), which tracked China’s construction and reclamation activities in the Spratleys through the use of satellite imagery, China reclaimed 2.7 million square meters of land on Fiery Cross Reef.
As IHS Jane’s 360 reported in early 2015, the 3,000-meter airstrip at Fiery Cross was the first to be built by China on these characteristics. The length of the airstrip on Fiery Cross was of particular concern to observers in the region and the United States as it suggested intended military use. As Jeanne“Noted at the time, the airstrip specifications are” well within the parameters of the existing People’s Liberation Army Air Force runways in mainland China, the length of which varies from d ‘approximately 2,700 m to a maximum of 4,000 m’. Statements from the Vietnamese or Chinese Foreign Ministry do not immediately show whether the civilian plane that landed on Fiery Cross Reef on Saturday was comparable in size to a large military plane, such as a long-range bomber.
AMTI notes a range of other structures and facilities at Fiery Cross that suggest the man-made island has the potential to serve as a major energy projection node for China in the South China Sea. Satellite imagery reveals a 630,000 square meter port, large enough to accommodate large warships and tankers, anti-aircraft weapons, two helipads, two lighthouses and satellite communications antennas. AMTI also notes that China could build a new radar tower and possible gun locations at Fiery Cross Reef.