China has deployed a military aircraft to a third reclaimed outpost in a disputed South China Sea island chain.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) has published images showing a a Shaanxi Y-8 military aircraft on Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands.
The plane was “designed as a military transport aircraft, but some variants are used for maritime patrol or signals intelligence” said the think tank, which is part of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
The photographs represent the first confirmed deployment of military plane on the island, which has one of three runways in the Spratlys. Military aircraft have now landed on all three of the airstrips, AMTI said.
The organisation said that a naval patrol aircraft landed at Fiery Cross Reef two years ago, while two Xian Y-7 military transport aircraft were seen on Mischief Reef in January.
AMTI said the recent deployment “should be particularly concerning to the Philippines, which has about 100 civilians and a small military garrison on Thitu Island — also known as Pag-asa — just 12 nautical miles away”.
The move comes after the United States warned last week that there would be “consequences” following a report that Beijing had installed long-range missiles on the island chain.
Asked about this deployment last week, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said: “With our recently developed close relationship and friendship with China, we are confident that those missiles are not directed at us.”
Tensions have been escalating in the disputed waters in recent years as China transforms partially submerged reefs into fortified islands.
China claims that its military facilities are purely defensive — and, besides which, it can do what it likes on its own territory.
Beijing claims nearly all the South China Sea, despite partial counter-claims from the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam. Yesterday (Wednesday, May 9), Hanoi urged China to remove its missiles from the Spratly islands.
President Xi Jinping presided over China’s biggest ever military parade in the strategic waters last month.