China set to begin operating civilian flights to and from disputed South China Sea next year

China is set to begin operating civilian flights to and from a disputed island in the South China Sea within a year, state media reported Friday as Beijing ramps up infrastructure development in the contested waters.

The flights will be to Sansha City on Woody Island in the contested Paracel archipelago, the official Xinhua News Agency said, quoting a top Communist Party official, Sansha Mayor Xiao Jie.

Sansha was officially established in 2012 to administer several island groups, including the Paracels, Spratly Islands, Macclesfield Bank, and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea.

In January, Beijing said it carried out test flights to a newly constructed airfield covering reclaimed land on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands, which are claimed by China, Vietnam and four other governments.

Quoting Xiao, the Xinhua report said the airfields on Woody Island and Fiery Cross Reef would “improve air traffic services in the South China Sea and provide more information about weather, aeronautics, communication, navigation and surveillance.”

The construction of airstrips in the area has stoked concerns that China is attempting to lay the groundwork for an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the waters, which would effectively put it in control of vital sea lanes.

Beijing claims most of the waters in the South China Sea, through which nearly $5 trillion in trade passes each year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the area.

The U.S. Navy conducted what Washington calls “freedom of navigation” operations near disputed islands in the South China Sea in October and late January.

The United States, Japan and other nations in the region have urged China to halt its massive land-reclamation projects and to refrain from militarizing the waters.

In February, the United States and Taiwan confirmed reports by U.S. media that Beijing had “recently” dispatched surface-to-air missiles and radar systems to Woody Island, which they said went against a vow by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to militarize its claims in the waters.

Some analysts have said that the radar and weapons systems could help China to establish an ADIZ, similar to the one it declared in the disputed East China Sea in November 2013.

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