A Chinese fighter plane has been spotted on a Chinese-held island in the South China Sea, a US think tank reported on Thursday. This is the first such sighting in a year and also the first since US President Donald Trump took office.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a satellite image that was taken on March 29 of Woody Island in the Paracel island chain showed the J-11 fighter plane.
"This isn't a first, but it's the first time in a year," AMTI director Greg Poling told Reuters. He referred to the single fighter plane that was visible in the image and added: "There are likely more in the hangars nearby."
Poling said it was unclear how long the plane had been there, but added that similar deployments on artificial islands China has built further south in the South China Sea's Spratly archipelago could be expected now that military facilities had been completed there.
The news of the sighting was revealed while Trump was in Florida for meetings with China's President Xi Jinping on Thursday and Friday. Trump is expected to air US concerns about China's pursuit of territory and militarization of outposts in the South China Sea.
In the past, the United States said that rotational deployments of Chinese fighter jets to Woody Island were part of a disturbing trend of militarization. It has raised several questions about Beijing's intentions in the South China Sea, an important trade route.
When the Chinese embassy was contacted for the recent sighting, it did not respond to the request for comment. Earlier, China had rejected US charges of its militarization in the South China Sea. In March, Premier Li Keqiang said defence equipment had been placed on islands in the disputed waterway to maintain "freedom of navigation."
A US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the presence of a fighter aircraft on Woody Island was not something that was unexpected.
"It is already heavily militarised; no surprise we would be seeing military aircraft there," the official added.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said earlier on Thursday that he had ordered troops to occupy uninhabited islands and shoals it claims in the South China Sea. This move is likely to anger China as it claims the almost whole of the strategic waterway.