China’s state run media announced Friday that the country will begin civilian flights to and from Sansha City on disputed Woody Island in the South China Sea’s Paracel archipelago. US officials condemned China’s assertive position regarding the territory, noting that launching civilian flights complicates ongoing disputes between rival claimants in the region.
China’s territorial claim has significant economic and foreign policy ramifications for the region. The waters surrounding the island are said to have significant offshore oil deposits and also play host to over $5 trillion in annual ship-borne trade. China, along with neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have competing claims for the territory and surrounding waterway.
US State Department spokeswoman Anna Richey-Allen said the commercial flights would be "inconsistent with the region’s commitments to exercise restraint from actions that could complicate or escalate disputes."
In calling on the Chinese to cease its island-building activity, Allen went on to say, "China should heed to its prior public commitments to cease land reclamation and militarization on their outposts in the South China Sea, and instead focus on reaching agreement on acceptable behavior in disputed areas."
Friday’s announcement comes after weeks of heated rhetoric by US and Taiwanese officials against China’s placement of surface-to-air missiles on the island. The US condemned these actions, saying that they represent a move by China to militarize the South China Sea creating not only a security risk, but also acting in contravention to China’s previous stated diplomatic commitments.
Beijing responded by saying that it is entitled to "limited defensive facilities" on what it regards to be its own territory. China contends that there have been no surface-to-air missiles placed on the island, suggesting the accusations are propaganda and media hype.
Washington responds by claiming that Beijing is engaging in full-scale militarization and takeover of the territory, citing the presence of armed Chinese fighter jets and a reinforced military air hanger on the island.