International organizations have spotted Chinese aircraft in the Paracel chain at other times over at least the past year, making this case unique because official Chinese media reported the deployment, said Jonathan Spangler, director of the South China Sea Think Tank in Taipei.

“China was trying hard to offset all the negative publicity it was getting and also trying to bolster its image with ASEAN countries and trying to work things out with the Philippines under (President) Duterte,” Spangler said.

“Perhaps now the attention in the region has been drawn a bit away from the South China Sea temporarily and that could be (a) reason China might be more willing to be a bit more outspoken,” he said.

China’s follow-up to the deployment will depend on what reactions follow, Spangler said. A formal complaint from abroad would hurt China’s image as neighborly negotiator, but lack of one would offer “smooth sailing” until someone protests, he said.