China has landed two more planes on a contested reef in the South China Sea amid controversy about its previous flight, which according to Beijing was conducted to test the readiness of a newly-built runway for civil aviation.
On Wednesday, two civilian aircraft landed on the Yongshu Jiao Reef in Nansha Islands during “test flights”, China’s official Xinhua news agency reported.
The jets departed from and returned to the Chinese southern city of Haikou in a two-hour journey each way.
“This successful test flight proves that this airport is equipped with the capacity to ensure the safe operation of large civilian aircraft,” said Xinhua, adding the airstrip would help transport supplies, personnel and medical aid.
China constructed the 3,000-meter runway on the Yongshu Jiao Reef by dredging sand up onto reefs and atolls in Nansha Islands.
On January 2, Beijing also landed a civilian plane on the same airstrip in its first test flight.
The move sparked a formal diplomatic complaint from Vietnam, which described it as a violation of sovereignty. The Philippines also said it would file a protest at the incident.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, defended the landing, saying, “Relevant activity falls completely within China’s sovereignty,” adding that her country “has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and their adjacent waters.”
China claims sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea, which is also claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. The contested waters are believed to be rich in oil and gas.
The dispute has at times drawn in extra-territorial countries, particularly the United States, which have more often sided with China’s rivals.
Beijing accuses Washington of meddling in the regional issues and deliberately stirring up tensions in the South China Sea. The US, however, accuses Beijing of carrying out what it calls a land reclamation program in the South China Sea by building artificial islands in the disputed areas.