China just made another potentially destabilizing move in some of the world's most disputed territory.
On January 4th, Vietnam formally accused China of violating its sovereignty and a recent confidence-building pact on Saturday by landing a plane on an airstrip Beijing built on an artificial island in a contested part of the South China Sea, according to Reuters.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh said the airfield, had been "built illegally" on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago.
Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry rejected the complaint, saying that the test flight on the newly built airfield on the reef was a matter "completely within China's sovereignty," the Chinese state news agency Xinhua reported.
The incident is yet another high-profile spat between China and Vietnam over the statue sof hte South China Sea. In May of 2014, China moved several oil rigs into waters within Vietnam's exclusive economic zone, an unprecedented move that sparked a brief diplomatic crisis.
Currently five countries with competing claims in the region have built airstrips in the contested Spratly Islands.
Through actually landing an aircraft on the artificial island, Beijing is reinforcing its claim that these islands are part of the China's sovereign territory. That implies not only control over the islands' airspace, but also the islands' surrounding waters as well. These waters could include oil and gas deposits, and might also project into the exclusive economic zones of neighboring states — areas in which a country has the recognized legal right to assert its security and economic interests, even if these areas do not constitute sovereign territory.
The US rejects Beijing's assertion that the islands are in fact a sovereign part of China — a position that the US attempted to reinforce through deploying the USS Lasse on a "freedom of navigation" exercise near the artificial island in October of 2015.(Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/CSIS)
Washington has criticized China's construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and worries that Beijing plans to use them for military purposes, even though China says it has no hostile intent.
In response to the Chinese aircraft landing, Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a spokeswoman for the US State Department, said there was "a pressing need for claimants to publicly commit to a reciprocal halt to further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and militarization of disputed features," according to Reuters.
Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said China used a civil aircraft to conduct the flight to test whether the airfield facilities meet civil-aviation standards, adding that "China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands [the Chinese name for the Spratley Islands] and their adjacent waters," according to Reuters.
(Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/CSIS)
China claims almost all the South China Sea, which is believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. About $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the sea each year every year.
Beijing has been building up facilities on the islands it controls. China's 2,740,000 square meter land grab in the South China Sea has huge military implications, according to experts at IHS Jane's and the Center for Strategic International Studies' Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. The airfield on the Fiery Cross Reef is 3000 meters, or nearly two miles long, enough to accommodate large military aircraft.
Satellite imagery collected by the AMTI also suggest possible sites for anti-air guns, anti-special forces installations, radar towers, filling stations, and ports with the capacity for large military ships and tankers.
The establishment of these islands as a military base would be an important tool for Chinese power projection in the region. This appears to fall in line with other steps they've recently taken, like building a second aircraft carrier, developing naval bases in Africa, and flying six strategic bombers deep into the Pacific Ocean as part of a November 2015 exercise.
The US, which is concerned about the region's balance of power shifting towards China, has taken steps to demonstrate their "freedom of navigation" in the South China Sea. These steps have included patrolling the disputed islands with guided-missile destroyers, stationing the USS Ronald Reagan in Japan, and flying bombers near reefs.
Thus far, China has responded to the patrols by filing complaints, condemning the US actions as "provocation" —but going ahead with their efforts nonetheless.
US allies in the region have increased their military spending in an attempt to counter China's strategic inroads in the region. Japan signed a controversial bill to expand the role of their military, and Taiwan agreed to buy $1.8 billion in arms from the US.
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