China's navy dispatched a military plane to one of the country's man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea, the Defense Ministry said, in what is believed to be the first openly acknowledged mission of its kind.
A brief statement on the ministry's website said the plane was on patrol when it was diverted to Fiery Cross Reef on Sunday morning to pick up three injured construction workers.
The plane then flew to Sanya on China's southernmost island province of Hainan where it landed at Fenghuang International Airport, the ministry said.
Details about the plane and where it was based were not given, although a photo accompanying the report showed a four-propeller Y-8 transport being met by an ambulance.
The Global Times newspaper said Sunday's flight marked "the first time a Chinese military plane has openly landed on Yongshujiao," using the Chinese name for Fiery Cross Reef. The speed with which the mission was accomplished was a testament to China's long-term policy of patrolling over the South China Sea, said the paper, a nationalist tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party newspaper People's Daily.
China completed the runway on Fiery Cross Reef last year and in January flew three commercial jets to the island as a test.
That move drew complaints from Vietnam, which along with four other governments is enmeshed a heated dispute with Beijing over large parts of the South China Sea. Hanoi accused China of threatening the safety of civilian flights by failing to properly inform its aviation authorities of the flights beforehand.
The U.S. also complained that the flights raised tensions and reiterated its calls for a halt to land reclamation and militarization of outposts in the area. The Philippines, which also claims islands and reefs controlled by China, criticized the move.
Tensions have risen in the last two years after China transformed Fiery Cross and other coral reefs in the Spratly Island chain into islands that could be used to project its military might far from the Chinese mainland. Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also claim territory in the South China Sea that China says belongs to it.
The new islands in the South China Sea have become a source of tension between Beijing and Washington, which refuses to view them legally as islands entitled to territorial seas and special economic zones. While the United States is not a claimant state, it says it has a national interest in the peaceful settlement of disputes in the South China Sea and in freedom of navigation in waters that are critical for world trade.