This handout picture from China’s official Xinhua News Agency shows a China Southern Airlines civilian plane landing at a newly-built airstrip on an island at Fiery Cross Reef, in the South China Sea, on January 6, 2016.
By Vu Trong Khanh
Jan. 9, 2016 5:06 a.m. ET
HANOI—Vietnam’s civil aviation regulators have accused China of jeopardizing regional air safety by flying aircraft to a disputed reef in the South China Sea.
The Civil Aviation Authority of Vietnam said unannounced flights “threaten the safety of all flights in the region”, according to reports published in state-run media Saturday. It said it had filed a complaint with the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization, or ICAO, and sent a protest letter to China’s government.
“ICAO is responsible for supervising all civil aviation activities in the world, and we expect that it will issue warnings to China after it finds out about its violations,” Vietnam’s civil aviation director Lai Xuan Thanh subsequently said in a telephone interview.
China’s foreign ministry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Beijing on Wednesday said it had landed planes on a newly-built airstrip on an island at Fiery Cross Reef, part of the Spratly islands chain claimed by Vietnam and China, which also claims nearly the entire South China Sea as its territorial waters.
Vietnam, though, has been mandated by ICAO to supervise international air traffic through a large portion of the South China Sea known as the Ho Chi Minh City Flight Information Region, specifically tracking flights and providing alerts when needed. Aviation authorities were reported in state media as saying they had recorded 46 instances of Chinese planes flying without warning through Vietnam’s area of responsibility in the first week of January, including the test flights to Fiery Cross Reef.
Mr. Thanh said Chinese planes flew onto the flight paths of several international commercial flights, though none had to change their routes as a result.
China’s flights to Fiery Cross Reef mark a further escalation in the race among various claimants to the South China Sea to develop their presence on atolls and reefs in the area. Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan also occupy some geographical features there. In some instances, these include small garrisons and limited military facilities.
In recent years, China has moved to expand and upgrade its own outposts in the area, however, upsetting the status quo.
Vietnam has complained that the recent test flights to Fiery Cross Reef violate its territorial rights, while this week Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said China is on track to set up an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea that could limit free navigation of flights in the region. Such a move would also challenge Vietnam’s supervisory role in parts of the South China Sea.
The U.S. has also criticized Beijing’s flights to Fiery Cross Reef, with a Defense Department spokeswoman recently saying the test flights “are inconsistent with the region’s commitments to exercise restraint from actions that could complicate or escalate disputes.”
—Chun Han Wong contributed to this article.
Original article can be found here: http://www.wsj.com
A satellite image of Fiery Cross Reef in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Islands shows an airstrip under construction in April 2015.