For the first time, China has landed a plane on a runway on one of its artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea.
The plane landed on Jan. 2 on a runway at the Fiery Cross Reef. Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying confirmed during the weekend that a civilian plane had landed on the runway during a test flight to see if it met “civilian aviation standards.”
The 10,000-foot-long runway is one of three China has been building in contested waters in the last year. Each runway would support long-range bombers, China’s best jet fighters and other aircraft. This would give China a new, militaristic advantage deep in the maritime center of South East Asia.
The South China Sea serves as a strategic waterway through which $5 trillion in ship borne goods passes through each year.
China is at odds over parts of the South China Sea with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Vietnam responded to the landing by launching formal diplomatic protests and The Philippines said it expects to do the same. Meanwhile in Washington, State Department spokesperson John Kirby said the landing “raises tensions and threatens regional stability.”
While the U.S. does not lay claim to any exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, it has repeatedly condemned China for threatening regional stability and freedom of navigation through its massive land reclamation.
China has been enraging its neighbors by building artificial islands from seven reefs and atolls in the Spratlys archipelago and claiming virtually all of the South China Sea.
Beijing maintains these islands are being built for civilian purposes such as fishing research and coast guard operations.
In October, The U.S. conducted “freedom of navigation” patrols by sending a guided-missile destroyer near one of China’s artificial islands. American B-52 bombers flew near the islands in November.
Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has criticized the Obama administration for delaying more “freedom of navigation” patrols within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands.