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South China Sea: Chinese Civilian Aircraft Lands on Fiery Cross Reef; By Carlyle A. Thayer

C3S Paper No. 0007/2016


We seek your assessment about media reports that China landed a plane on an airstrip built on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly archipelago on January 2, 2016.

Our questions are:

Q1. What is your assessment about China’s latest move?

ANSWER: China’s test landing of a civil aviation plane on the runway at Fiery Cross Reef was to be expected after China basically completed constructing the runway and basic support facilities. China will step up civilian air activity gradually in step with improvements of the infrastructure, including fuel storage and maintenance and repair facilities. We can expect the same to occur at Subi and Mischief Reefs.

Q2. Many security experts say the airfield can accommodate most Chinese military aircraft. Does this mean that Beijing will militarize its artificial islands?

ANSWER: An airfield that is 3,000 metres long can accommodate all military aircraft in China’s current inventory. But to accommodate a permanent presence China will need to build hangars, fuel storage, and maintenance and repair facilities. China is likely to station civilian maritime law enforcement aircraft on its artificial islands initially. Military aircraft will follow when China judges the time is ripe but these are likely to be basic maritime patrol airplanes. China has not yet created an air force base that would signal the conversion of the artificial islands to military use. The deployment of advanced J-11BH/BHS fighters to Woody Island in October last year is a harbinger of what might occur in the Spratly islands.

Q3. What if China sends a bigger plane, like an Airbus, to the runway on Fiery Cross Reef? How should Vietnam respond?

ANSWER: China has over two hundred A320 Airbusses. At the present China is unlikely to base permanently an Airbus on one of its artificial islands because of the relatively poor infrastructure there. China could land and take off from the artificial islands and carry between 140 to 160 passengers on each trip. China could replace whole crews on Coast Guard ships or bring in families to meet with fishermen, scientists and/or other personnel. If China did use the Airbus it would do so to convince the world that its construction of artificial islands was civilian in nature. All Vietnam can do is protest. It is clear that neither ASEAN nor the United States will confront China directly and China will take advantage of this to advance its operational control.

Q4. The United States deployed warships and maritime aircraft to patrol in the South China Sea to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims in the contested waters in 2015. What do you think will be Washington’s response if China takes more assertive actions in the South China Sea, for example, sending bigger planes to the airstrips on its artificial islands?

ANSWER: The United States conducted only two limited freedom of navigation operational patrols (FONOP) in 2015. There was much confusion about what the FONOP were intended to achieve. One Pentagon spokesperson said they conducted “innocent passage”. If this is the case the US achieved the opposite of what it intended. Instead of challenging China’s illegal claim, the US was according the artificial islands the status of naturally formed islands under international law. If the FONOP sailed near to but did not cross the 12 nautical mile limit, once again the US was according a maritime zone to an artificial island to which it is not entitled. The U.S. has said it will continue to conduct FONOP every quarter starting in January. To be effective the United States needs to sail closer to the artificial islands than 12 nautical miles. China’s artificial islands cannot claim a 12 nautical mile territorial sea or any airspace under international law. They are entitled to a 500 metre safety zone only. The United States is unlikely to challenge the operations of civil aircraft landing and taking off on China’s artificial islands as this is a separate issue from illegal maritime zones.

Q5.In your opinion, given Chin’s ambtins, what is going to happen next in the South China Sea?

ANSWER: China will calibrate its actions and gradually take over the South China Sea by operating forward bases on its artificial islands. In 2016 China has to prepare a response to any adverse decision by the Arbitral Tribunal hearing the claims bought by the Philippines. China will ignore any decision that goes against its interests and will step up operations until they are considered routine and normal by regional states. China also hopes that either the Philippines Supreme Court will rule the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States unconstitutional and/or that the next Philippine president will be more accommodating to China. We can expect to see a permanent presence of Chinese fishing boats, oil exploration crews and Coast Guard in the Spratlys. The Chinese military is already present providing technical support in the form of communications, long-range radar and electronic warfare equipment. Eventually we will see Chinese Navy frigates on permanent station and eventually military aircraft.

(Carlyle A. Thayer is Emeritus Professor, The University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Email: c.thayer@adfa.edu.au)

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