Beijing landed a civilian aircraft on its recently finished airfield on the reclaimed Fiery Cross Reef in the contested Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea, China’s Foreign Ministry announced over the weekend. Vietnam was particularly angry, according to the WSJ:
The flight drew a quick protest from Vietnam, which said China had “seriously violated” its sovereignty. A Philippines foreign ministry spokesman said Manila, another claimant in the Spratlys, also planned to lodge a protest with the Chinese […]Vietnam said it lodged an official protest with the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi over the action. The Spratly Islands are the subject of overlapping claims by several neighbors, including the Philippines, a U.S. ally.
The U.S. State Department’s response was more measured: “We are concerned that these test flights have exacerbated tensions and are inconsistent with the region’s commitments to exercise restraint from actions that could complicate or escalate disputes.”Last week, China confirmed it is building a second aircraft carrier—this time from scratch. Building the aircraft carrier will take years, so this doesn’t immediately change anything. Still, tensions over contested Chinese moves in the South China Sea were a big story in 2015 and 2016 looks likely to bring more of the same. We’ll be watching closely to see if the White House will follow up on last fall’s freedom of navigation exercises in a consistent manner or whether it will send more of its trademark mixed signals.