BEIJING - Beijing has completed a runway for military aircraft on a South China Sea island also claimed by Vietnam, state-run media reported, as it asserts its territorial claims in the area.

The newly built facility stretches across Woody Island, part of the Paracel chain, China’s Xinhua news agency said. The Paracels are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan, and tensions between Beijing and Hanoi rose this year over Chinese construction and oil exploration there.

The runway is Beijing’s latest physical assertion of control in the area, two years after it declared a city named Sansha centred on Woody Island - known as Yongxing in Chinese - to administer vast swathes of the South China Sea. Vital shipping routes run through the waters and they are believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits. Parts of the sea are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Xinhua’s report gave few details but said the runway was 2,000 metres long, and indicated it would have military uses. ‘With the completion and continued improvements to the runway on Yongxing, military aircraft can be based in the Paracels, and greatly improve Chinese defence capabilities in the Xisha and Nansha islands,’ Xinhua said, using the Chinese names for the Paracels and Spratlys, a separate island chain. Pictures posted with the report showed part of the airstrip surrounded by construction cranes and clear blue water. China previously built a school on Woody Island for 40 children whose parents work there, state-run media said in June. Beijing placed an oil rig in disputed waters near the Paracel islands in May, sparking deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

Sansha hosts a military garrison and this year began setting up a patrol system intended in part to ‘safeguard national sovereign rights’. Expanded infrastructure and tourism are in the works, domestic media have reported.

Beijing on Wednesday dismissed the possibility of the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet, days after the exiled spiritual leader indicated he was in contact with Chinese officials over a historic pilgrimage. ‘Our position on the Dalai Lama is consistent and clear,’ Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular briefing.

‘What he needs to do is not make a so-called return to Tibet but give up his position and conduct on splitting China,’ he added. ‘This will do good for him.’ Now aged 79, the Dalai Lama has been exiled from Tibet since he fled a failed uprising in 1959. Beijing has since condemned him as a ‘dangerous separatist’, yet the Nobel laureate spiritual leader - who retired from politics in 2011 - maintains that he wants only greater autonomy for Tibetan areas in China.

In an interview with AFP at his base in northern India last week, the Dalai Lama was asked about the possibility of going back to his homeland. Contacts had been made with Chinese personnel, he said. ‘Some Chinese officials, for example the deputy party secretary in the autonomous region of Tibet, he also mentioned the possibility of my visit.’

‘It’s not finalised, not yet, but the idea is there,’ he added during celebrations to mark 25 years since he won the Nobel peace prize.

The Dalai Lama has long expressed a desire to visit Wutai Shan, a mountain in northern China considered sacred by the country’s Buddhists. The comments were the strongest suggestion yet of a thaw in relations between Beijing and the exile. Last month, an anonymous blog post appeared briefly on a Chinese-run website describing the Dalai Lama’s return in positive terms, before it was taken down.

But the Chinese foreign ministry’s comments - while neither confirming nor denying that contacts have taken place - indicate that publicly Beijing is maintaining its hardline stance towards the monk. China’s ruling Communist Party has increasingly put pressure on foreign governments not to hold official meetings with or grant visas to the Dalai Lama - or risk facing economic consequences.

The latest country to bow to such pressure is South Africa, which the Dalai Lama has accused of ‘bullying’ by failing to grant him a visa to attend a summit of Nobel laureates in Cape Town. The summit was later cancelled.