BEIJING: China began daily civilian charter flights to Woody Island in the contested South China Sea Thursday, the official Xinhua news agency said, in a move likely to raise regional tensions.
Beijing asserts sovereignty over almost all of the strategically vital South China Sea despite rival claims from Southeast Asian neighbors and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
It landed its first passenger plane in Sansha city on Woody Island in the contested Paracels chain, where Vietnam and Taiwan each have rival claims.
China established Sansha by unilaterally awarding it two million square kilometers of sea in 2012 and declaring it the country’s largest city.
The Asian giant hopes to turn the area around Woody Island into a “major tourist attraction comparable to the Maldives”, the state-run China Daily said in May.
China has encouraged patriotic citizens to visit the contested Paracels, which are known as Xisha in Chinese.
Chinese tourists have been allowed to travel to non-militarized areas of the South China Sea since 2013, but foreign passport-holders are not allowed to join the trips.
In June, authorities announced a new proposal that seeks to develop tourist routes to the disputed Spratlys, located further south, by 2020.
Such acts have deepened already simmering anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam while domestic critics accuse Hanoi of being too meek towards its giant northern neighbour.
At least three Chinese nationals were killed in 2014 when rioting broke out in Vietnam after Beijing sent an oil rig into contested waters. AFP