China launches world's largest amphibious aircraft with an eye on South China Sea

China's AG600: World's largest amphibious aircraft

Successful maiden flight

The AG600 aircraft is around the size of Boeing 737. It is 37 meters long and has a 38.8-meter wingspan. On December 24, 2017, the plane took its maiden flight for about an hour from Zhuhai airport in the southern Guangdong province close to the South China Sea. At least 17 orders for the AG600 have been placed so far.

China's AG600: World's largest amphibious aircraft

Largest amphibious aircraft?

While the aircraft has been dubbed the largest amphibious plane in the world, it is considerably smaller in size than billionaire Howard Hughes' flying boat, Spruce Goose, which was 67 meters long and had a 97-meter wingspan. But Spruce Goose only managed one maiden flight in 1947.

China's AG600: World's largest amphibious aircraft

Military and civilian use

The aircraft spent eight years in production and was built by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. State media claims the AG600 will be used primarily to put out forest fire and perform maritime rescues. The aircraft, however, has military applications and bolsters China's military presence in the South China Sea.

China's AG600: World's largest amphibious aircraft

An eye on South China Sea

The AG600 puts China's controversial island-building projects in the disputed South China Sea within range. A US-based think-tank reported last week that Beijing was building the infrastructure for fully-functioning air and naval bases on some of the South China Sea disputed islands. China's engineering feats in the region have raised concerns from its neighbors.

China's AG600: World's largest amphibious aircraft

Military modernization

The success of AG600 strengthens China's modernizing military. Earlier this year, China launched its first domestically-built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), China spent $215 billion (181 billion euros) on military in 2016, well ahead of India at $56 billion and Japan at $46 billion.

China has successfully tested the world's largest amphibious aircraft. The 37-meter long beast might help China in its controversial South China Sea ambitions.

China tested the world's largest amphibious aircraft on Sunday. The 37-meter (121-feet) long AG600 aircraft plane, codenamed "Kunlong," took off from the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai and flew for almost an hour on its maiden voyage.

The aircraft has a 38.8-meter wingspan and four turboprop engines. It is around the size of a Boeing 737 and can carry 50 people.

"Its successful maiden flight makes China among the world's few countries capable of developing a large amphibious aircraft," chief designer Huang Lingcai told Xinhua state news agency.

The aircraft has military applications but will also be used for firefighting and performing maritime rescues, according to Chinese media.

It took the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China eight years to build the plane, according to China Global Television Network.

South China Sea countries are building larger navies

Pride of the Chinese armada

The first Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was originally a Soviet model built in 1986. In 1998, the stripped hulk was sold to China by Ukraine and rebuilt by the Dailian Shipbuilding Industry Company in northeastern China. It was completed in 2012 and has been ready for service since 2016.

South China Sea countries are building larger navies

'Black holes' for Vietnam

In recent years, Vietnam has acquired six Russian Kilo-class submarines. Two were delivered in 2017. The subs are nicknamed "black holes" by the US Navy, because they run very quietly and are difficult to locate. They are specialized for missions in shallow waters and for defense against enemy ships and submarines.

South China Sea countries are building larger navies

Flagship of the Philippines

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar is the flagship of the Philippine Navy. The vessel is one of three former US Coast Guard cutters that were acquired by the Philippines. The ship was first put in service in 1967 and it was modernized in 2011. In 2012, it was involved in the dispute with the People's Republic of China over Scarborough Shoal.

South China Sea countries are building larger navies

Warships from European shipyards

Indonesia is in the process of buying new ships and modernizing its navy. Pictured here is the KRI Sultan Hasanuddin, a Sigma-class corvette. The ship was built in 2007 in the Netherlands. Germany also supplies warships to countries in the region. The Kasturi-class corvettes in Malaysia and Brunei's Darussalam-class high-seas patrol boats come from German shipyards.

South China Sea countries are building larger navies

Singapore's stealth ships

Singapore is unmatched for hi-tech in the region. Since 2007, the city-state has put six Formidable-class stealth ships in service. All of them were built in France.

South China Sea countries are building larger navies

The long arm of the US Navy

The only truly global naval power remains the US Navy. The seventh fleet is stationed in the Pacific. It is the largest forward-deployed fleet of the US Navy with 50-60 ships, 350 aircraft and 60,000 personnel. This includes the only US aircraft carrier stationed outside of the US, the USS Ronald Regan, stationed at the US naval base in Yokosuka, Japan.

China's military ambitions

China is currently modernizing its military with an emphasis on its naval capabilities. The AG600 puts China's controversial island-building projects in the disputed South China Sea within range.

Read more: South China Sea: Filipino fishermen hope for Chinese benevolence

"Its 4,500-km operational range and ability to land and take off from water makes it well-suited for deployment over China's artificial islands," James Char, a military analyst at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, told the AFP news agency.

For instance, the aircraft can fly to the James Shoal, which is claimed by Taiwan and Malaysia.

"The plane's capacity and maneuverability make it ideal for transporting material to those maritime features that are too structurally fragile to support runways," Char added.

Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea, through which some $5 trillion (4.2 trillion euros) worth annual trade passes, is contested by a number of East and Southeast Asian nations.

shs/aw  (AFP, dpa)