TAIPEI — A new Chinese-built seaplane could help seal Beijing's control over its claims in the South China Sea (SCS), say military specialists on China.
Despite the lack of direct mainland access to Beijing's strategic claims in the SCS, the aircraft are seen as a boon to solidifying control of the area by China's military and maritime enforcement agencies for island hopping within the crowded clusters of the 750 reefs, islets, atolls and islands in the Spratly Islands archipelago.
"Amphibious planes like the AG600 would be perfect for resupplying the new artificial islands that the Chinese are building in the SCS," said Richard Bitzinger, coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
"At the same time, these islands would be excellent bases of operations for the AG600 to engage in maritime patrols of claimed territories."
The AG600 will also serve as political leverage, said Ching Chang, a research fellow at Taiwan's ROC Society for Strategic Studies.
"States need effective governance to support their territorial claim" and the AG600 will enhance China's capability in "law enforcement, fishery patrol, anti-poaching activity on coral reefs, pollution prevention, search and rescue, medical rescue transportation, meteorological and seismic survey, namely, all the government functions that may signify its substantial governance in the South China Sea."
This type of governance and control will serve China's argument that the islands are "inhabitable according to UNCLOS [United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea] requirements, which support the PRC [People's Republic of China] to claim an EEZ [exclusive economic zone] in the South China Sea."
However, Bateman does not see these aircraft as a "game changer" in the SCS, though they could serve to "quickly resupply and reinforce the military outposts on islands without air strips."
"Since the program can hardly be justified by the civilian demand, the likely explanation is that the program has a significant military importance," Kashin said.
The AG600 is not the only seaplane under development by CAIGA. At the 2014 Airshow China, the company displayed models of the twin-engine turboprop-engine powered H660 and H631, each with a similar payload and range. There was also a model of the four turbofan-engine powered H680 Sea Eagle.
The company also builds two light passenger seaplanes, the 208B and HO300, both with a range of roughly 1,000-1,500 kilometers.