China's domestically developed AG600, the world's largest amphibious aircraft. Photo: Reuters

Even by China’s military standards, it’s big. Known as “enormous dragon”,  the AG600 is the world’s largest amphibious aircraft in production after finally taking off on its maiden flight during the Christmas holidays.

With a wingspan of 38.8 meters and powered by four engines, the aircraft can carry 50 people and stay airborne for 12 hours.

“Its successful maiden flight makes China among the world’s few countries capable of developing a large amphibious aircraft,” Huang Lingcai, the chief designer at Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC), told the government-controled Xinhua news agency.

The state-owned aviation conglomerate spent almost eight years developing the AG600, which is roughly the size of a Boeing 737, and is designed to carry out marine rescues and military operations.

Up to 17 orders have been received for this flying fortress from Chinese government departments and domestic companies. With a maximum flight range of 4,500 kilometers and a take-off weight of 53.5 tons, it can also be used for commercial services.

“Its 4,500km 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 Guardian.

China is in the process of a massive military modernization program, ranging from testing anti-satellite missiles to building stealth fighters.

This latest addition to its maritime capabilities comes at a time when the world’s second biggest economy has started to flex its muscles. “The AG600 is a protecting spirit of the sea, islands and reefs,” Xinhua said.

From the southern Chinese city of Sanya, the aircraft would be able to fly to the edge of the country’s territorial claims, the James Shoal, in four hours, the ultra conservative state-owned tabloid, Global Times, reported.

The shoal is also claimed by Taiwan and Malaysia. This collection of submerged rocks is about 80km from Malaysia’s coastline and more than 1,800km from the Chinese mainland.

“The plane’s capacity and maneuverability makes it ideal for transporting material to those maritime features that are too structurally fragile to support runways,” Char told The Guardian.

But then, Beijing’s buildup in the South China Sea, through which $5 billion in annual trade passes, has been hotly contested by other countries.

For many years, the Philippines was one of the region’s strongest opponents of Chinese expansionism, and took its case to the United Nations.

Last year, a panel ruled that China’s territorial claims in the sea were without legal basis, but Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte refused to take the matter further and backed away from the dispute.

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