BEIJING/HANOI -- China confirmed Saturday that it had flown an aircraft to a Spratly Islands airfield in what may have been a bid to solidify Beijing's grip on the military, heightening frictions with Vietnam over the disputed archipelago.
Beijing conducted a test flight to the new airport on Fiery Cross Reef "with a civil aircraft in order to test whether or not the facilities on it meet the standards for civil aviation," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said. Such activities fall "completely within China's sovereignty," Hua asserted.
People's Liberation Army reforms rolled out Thursday call for shifting leadership away from the ground forces -- a change meeting with resistance inside the military. Beijing may have aimed to use the flight to strengthen its control of the armed forces by highlighting its tough stance on the South China Sea, which it has positioned as a "core interest."
But the government also hopes to avoid worsening tensions with the U.S. The use of a civilian aircraft rather than a military one indicates that Beijing is keeping an eye on observers both at home and abroad.
Vietnam handed a letter of protest over the flight to the Chinese Embassy in Hanoi on Saturday. And on Sunday, it asked Beijing for an urgent investigation of the ramming and sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat off Vietnam's coast by a foreign vessel that may have been Chinese. China has indicated that it will provide information, according to Vietnam.
Public opinion on China has deteriorated in Vietnam since Beijing began drilling for oil in the Paracel Islands in May 2014. But China accounted for 30% of Vietnam's imports and 16.8% of its overall trade in 2014. With the Chinese Communist Party also potentially holding some sway over new Vietnamese leaders to be chosen in January, Hanoi is being forced to take a carrot-and-stick approach. It may aim to involve the U.S. and Japan, which have taken a tougher stance against Beijing, in hopes of checking China without standing front and center.