Beijing’s military ambitions in the South China Sea were given a boost last week after the country’s first domestically developed amphibious aircraft was reported to have successfully completed a series of on-water tests.
While its main role is to support maritime search and rescue missions, military observers said the new AG600 could also be used to transport troops or even conduct surveillance in the disputed waters.
All of those options remain open after China Aviation News reported last week that the aircraft had carried out its first water taxiing trials at a reservoir in Hubei province. It also performed well during a low-speed flight and all of its on-board systems worked as they should, the report said.
The AG600, or Kunlong, is the first aircraft of its kind to be built in the country. Roughly the size of a Boeing 737 - at 37 metres long with a 38.8-metre wingspan - it has a range of up to 4,500km and is designed to be able to take off and land in two-metre high waves.
Powered by four turboprop engines, it can carry up to 50 people during maritime search and rescue missions, and can scoop up 12 tonnes of water in 20 seconds to fight fires.
With a maximum take-off weight of 53.5 tonnes, it also surpasses both Japan’s ShinMaywa US-2 and Russia’s Beriev Be-200.
Mainland companies and government departments have already placed 17 orders for the aircraft, which are expected to be delivered by 2022.
The development of the AG600 is part of Beijing’s drive to modernise its military, and as it adopts a more muscular approach to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere, much to the dissatisfaction of neighbours such as Vietnam and world powers such as the United States.
The aircraft made its debut flight last December, with images of it taking off from an airport in Zhuhai, broadcast live by China Central Television. Military observers said the latest tests showed the AG600 was almost ready to go into service and that once it did would shift the balance of power in the disputed region.
“The AG600 would be suitable for the quick transport of troops and materials, and could also provide other support such as evacuating garrisons in the South China Sea or even out to the Spratlys,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the Maritime Security Programme at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“Beijing will also use it to justify any further build-up in the region, saying the aircraft can be used for the common good, such as providing support to foreign vessels in the area and for search and rescue.”
Beijing has had its rescue and salvage ship Nan Hai Jiu 115 permanently stationed in the Spratlys since July.