China started using artificial facilities to establish de facto control over the South China Sea

On January 2nd 2016, the Vietnamese Press voiced condemnation against China’s test flight to the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys Archipelago, quoting Vietnamese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Le Hai Binh when he asserted that China’s above-mentioned action had seriously violated Viet Nam’s sovereignty over the Spratlys, run counter to the common understanding of high-level Vietnamese and Chinese leaders and the Agreement between Viet Nam and China on the basic principles guilding the settlement of sea-related issues as well as the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), threatening peace and stability in the South China Sea, diminishing political trust between the two countries and negatively affecting the neighbourliness and good sentiments between the Vietnamese and Chinese peoples.

According the press, the Spokesperson of Viet Nam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also reaffirmed that “Viet Nam resolutely protests the above-mentioned action of China. Viet Nam requests China to immediately stop and not to repeat similar actions as well as take concrete and practical steps contributing to maintaining peace, stability, security, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.” On the same day, representative from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Viet Nam handed letter of appeal to the Embassy of China in Ha Noi.

The Fiery Cross Reef is a submerged coral reef spreading across over 110 km2 located on the Namyit Island of the Spratlys archipelago[1]. The Fiery Cross Reef possesses very important strategic meaning since it is situated on the Western end of the Spratlys in the southern waters of Viet Nam. For that reason, China used force to occupy the Fiery Cross Reef in 1988. Since August 2014, China has been conducting large-scale reclamation activities on the Fiery Cross Reef together with six other features in the Spratlys. According to latest statistics, the total reclaimed area on the Fiery Cross Reef has amounted to 2.7 million square meters, and China has completed an airport with a 3,100 m-long runway here.[2]


Though it is unreported by the press which type of plane was used, China’s test-flight to the Fiery Cross Reef showed a very dangerous new development in the South China Sea. On the one hand, China wanted to use the test flight to evaluate the capacity of its newly-built runway in the reclaimed sea for receiving aircrafts, particularly jetfighters. On the other hand, China aimed to test its air forces’ long-range capabilities, particularly the capability to combat at sea. Following the test flight to the Fiery Cross Reef, China could possibly continue with test flights to other structures in the Spratlys where it has also constructed runways such as the Mischief Reef and the Subi Reef.

At the same time, the operation of runway on the Fiery Cross Reef has given China strategic edges compared to other countries in and outside the region. From now on, the distance between China’s occupied locations in the Spratlys and its mainland should no longer be a problem. As a bigger cause of concern, it also helps China shorten the travel time from its occupied locations in the Spratlys to countries in the South China Sea. This is also a step taken to prepare the facilities for establishing an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea. What Chinese officials and scholars often say “it takes roughly an hour for Chinese jetfighters departing from the Fiery Cross Reef of Viet Nam to reach and attack Hanoi, and the same goes for an attack on Ho Chi Minh city” is no longer a threat but reality.

Below is scholar Truong Nhan Tuan’s projection about the air defense identification zone that China might establish over the South China Sea in the future.

In this context, Viet Nam and the countries in the region, particularly other claimants over the Spratlys should raise a strong voice, calling on the major countries in and outside the region to take decisive actions on the ground to prevent China’s next adventurous moves. Otherwise, China will be establishing air defense identification zone over the South China Sea in no time, and it won’t take long before China makes use of the new illegally constructed airports to control the South China Sea.

Minh Thai