New China row unsettles party

Recent pictures have shown the extent of China's new facilities. Photo courtesy of IHS Jane's

The airfield at Fiery Cross is now operational after months of intensive reclamation work and construction. Photo courtesy of IHS Jane’s

Vietnam has responded angrily to the landing of a Chinese aircraft on a reclaimed island in the disputed Spratly Islands.

The foreign ministry accused China of violating Vietnamese sovereignty by sending a civilian aircraft to a newly created airfield at Fiery Cross, until recently a partially submerged reef.

The latest row with Beijing comes at a sensitive moment for the Vietnamese Communist Party as it prepares for the selection of new leaders at this month’s national party congress.

Analysts say that even pro-China factions of the party must be sensitive to public opinion and show resolution in the face of any perceived threat from Beijing.

Hung meets Xi in the latest attempt to ease tensions.

Hung meets Xi in the latest attempt to ease tensions.

The Vietnamese foreign ministry said the Chinese move was a serious violation that undermined peace and stability in the South China Sea and eroded political trust. It said the airfield had been built illegally on the newly constructed island in Vietnamese territory.

“The flight went counter to the common perception of the two countries’ leaders, the agreement on basic principles guiding the settlement of Vietnam – China issues at sea and the spirit of the 2012 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the East Sea,” said foreign ministry spokesman Le Hai Binh. said.

The Chinese foreign ministry quickly rejected a protest note sent to its embassy in Hanoi. It said the landing was part of a test flight to the recently completed airfield and was completely within China’s sovereignty.

Militarisation of islands

The United States has expressed concern about rising tensions in line with its growing criticism of China’s reclamation work and attempt to claim territorial waters around the new islands.

The state department said there was “a pressing need for claimants to publicly commit to a reciprocal halt to further land reclamation, construction of new facilities, and militarisation of disputed features”.

Senior leaders from China and Vietnam have repeatedly tried to ease tensions over the South China Sea, which have pushed Hanoi to seek closer economic and political ties with the US.

The Chairman of the National Assembly, Nguyen Sinh Hung, visited Beijing last week in the latest attempt to shore up relations.

He met the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, with both sides stressing the need for them to control and manage the their disagreements and recognise their common interests.

China consolidates claim

President Xi came to Vietnam with the same message in November, but he met with a subdued and sceptical response from a party that’s wary of accusations that it lacks the will to stand up to its counterparts in Beijing.

Satellite photos have shown that China has been built three new airfields on reclaimed land in the Spratlys, each capable of hosting military aircraft including large bombers.

The Vietnamese military controls most of the islands in the Spratlys, while the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan also press strong claims to the archipelago.

China has sought to consolidate its claim to sovereignty in the area by building up partially submerged reefs and shoals into islands that can support its growing military presence in the South China Sea.