Vietnam protested against a Chinese military transport mission in the disputed South China Sea last week, calling it a violation of Vietnam’s sovereignty, a spokesperson said on Thursday.
Chinese state media reported that on Sept. 16, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) deployed a number of Y-20 large transport aircraft to return troops from three outposts in the Spratly Islands – which China calls Nansha — to the mainland.
This was the first time the PLA confirmed that this new type of aircraft had been operating on islands and reefs in the South China Sea, according to the Global Times, part of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily.
Vietnamese Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said at a regular press briefing in Hanoi on Thursday that Vietnam demands that China respect its sovereignty over the Paracel archipelago – which Vietnam calls Hoang Sa – and the Spratlys (Truong Sa), and immediately stop and not repeat similar activities.
Hang added that China should respect international law as well as the “common understanding shared by Vietnamese and Chinese leaders of remaining issues” related to the waterway.
Global Times quoted the PLA South Sea Fleet as saying that several Y-20 transport aircraft of the PLA Air Force took off from airfields on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef last Thursday, “carrying veterans who were garrisoned there to the Chinese mainland.” Previously, such missions were done by ships, it noted.
The three reefs are controlled by China but also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines. China, which claims most of the South China Sea, has extensively developed the three features with military facilities and airstrips despite the unresolved territorial disputes.
The Chinese newspaper quoted an unnamed military expert who said that the latest mission meant that “the PLA airfields in the South China Sea can host large transport aircraft, which can transport a relatively large number of troops and numerous pieces of equipment between the islands and reefs and the mainland very fast.”
Foreign media reported that a Y-20 cargo plane was spotted landing on Fiery Cross Reef in December last year but it was not confirmed until now.
Malaysia in June accused China of breaching its airspace after detecting “suspicious activity” by 16 Chinese military aircraft including Il-76 and Y-20 transporters over disputed waters off its state of Sarawak.
Malaysia dispatched fighter jets to intercept the Chinese planes, calling the maneuver a “serious threat to national sovereignty” and threatened to summon the Chinese ambassador in a diplomatic protest.
China insisted that the Chinese air force “strictly abided by international law without entering the airspace of other countries.”
The Xi’an Y-20 is China’s first indigenously developed heavy military transport aircraft. It has a payload capacity of over 60 tons and can carry up to 300 troops. The PLA Air Force is believed to have 20 such aircraft in service.
In another development, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said on Twitter that 24 Chinese air force aircraft entered the island’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ) on Thursday. Beijing has yet to comment on this.
This is the second-highest number of daily incursions by Chinese military airplanes into Taiwan’s ADIZ. The highest was 28 on June 15.