China launches daily flights to flashpoint island

By Reuters/Ben Blanchard   December 22, 2016 | 06:44 am PT
China launches daily flights to flashpoint island
A destroyed land bridge (top) is seen in this view of a North Island, near Tree Island and Woody Island in the Paracel chain, in the South China Sea November 14, 2016 in this Planet Labs handout photo received by Reuters on November 30, 2016. Trevor Hammond/Planet... Reuters
Vietnam has long claimed sovereignty over the island in the Paracel archipelago.

China has begun daily civilian charter flights to Woody Island in the South China Sea (which Vietnam calls the East Sea) after approving the airport there for civilian operations, the Xinhua state news agency reported on Thursday.

The maiden flight took off on Wednesday from Haikou, the provincial capital of Hainan Island. A ticket on the daily flight costs roughly 1,200 Yuan ($172.77) one-way.

The island's airport is a joint military-civilian facility and was approved for civilian operations last Friday, according to Xinhua.

"This will effectively improve the working and living conditions of civil servants and soldiers based in Sansha city," the report added.

The flights will reportedly leave Haikou Airport at 8:45 a.m. and return from Woody Island at 1 p.m.

Woody Island sits in the Paracel archipelago, which the Chinese navy violently seized in 1974. The island, which is also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, is the seat of what China calls Sansha City -- its administrative center in the seas to its south.

Officials in Beijing have laid claim to almost all of the waters through which $5 trillion of maritime trade passes each year. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan all have overlapping claims in the area.

China has been building airfields on other contested islands as part of a controversial land reclamation program; in July civilian aircraft successfully carried out calibration tests on two new airports in the Spratly Islands, on Mischief Reef and Subi Reef.

Though China calls it a city, Sansha's permanent population is no more than a few thousand, and many of the disputed islets and reefs in the sea are uninhabited.

In February, Taiwan and U.S. officials said China had deployed an advanced surface-to-air missile system on Woody Island.

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