On January 2, China for the first time landed a civilian plane on one of the runways it built on top of atolls and reefs in the . The landing confirms that China's artificial islands and bases in the South China Sea are being completed on schedule, and many officials from the United States and Southeast Asia fear military flights to the islands are not far off.
Multiple countries in Southeast Asia, including U.S. allies, have overlapping territorial claims with China in the South China Sea. Vietnam has announced a formal diplomatic protest to China's activities in the Spratly Islands, and Charles Jose, a Filipino Foreign Ministry official, said that the Philippines plans to do the same. As for the United States, State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the recent landing "raises tensions and threatens regional stability."
The runway at Fiery Cross Reef that was used for the landing is one of three landing strips China has been constructing in the region for more than a year. The runways are about 10,000 feet long, large enough to accommodate fighter jets, transport craft, and long-range bombers.
Back in September, , but the lack of details about what the islands will be used for has left many U.S. officials skeptical of China's commitment. China has made multiple claims that it intends to use the territory for peaceful purposes such as scientific research, but the islands aren't necessary for oceanic surveys and building them has done more damage to local ecosystems than studies could hope to remedy.
The big fear is that China will develop its manmade islands into military bases to prevent the U.S. from moving into certain areas of the Pacific. A 2010 by U.S. Air Force Major Christopher J. McCarthy says, "Today, China has emerged as a regional power with robust Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities and unclear political and military intentions." China's artificial islands are also close to one of the most heavily used shipping arteries in the world, accounting for over $5 trillion in annual trade, raising concerns over whether Beijing would strive to exert influence over commerce flowing through the Pacific.
"The next step will be, once they've tested it with several flights, they will bring down some of their fighter air power—SU-27s and SU-33's—and they will station them there permanently," Leszek Buszynski, a fellow at Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, told . Military officials in the area are already reporting increased radio warnings to aircraft from Chinese operators, including some issued from Fiery Cross, a measure that some officials worry is a sign that China intends to declare an (ADIZ), or at least set up a de facto ADIZ.
Senator John McCain, who serves as the chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, on Monday for failing to conduct more "freedom of navigation" patrols within 12 nautical miles of the manmade islands, territory that Beijing claims under Chinese sovereignty. One such patrol happened in October, a move that spurred China to deploy fighter jets to the South China Sea. Couple that with the fact that China is working aggressively to build new stealth fighters and a second aircraft carrier, and you can see why the U.S. is worried.