In a move that may have added to tensions, U.S. B-52 bombers flew near the South China Sea this week.
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn confirmed that the bombers flew in the vicinity of the disputed region as part of a “regularly scheduled, combined operation in the vicinity of the South China Sea,” Reuters reported Wednesday.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) September 26, 2018
U.S. military flights near the South China Sea are routine and permitted by international law, although China usually protests flights in such close proximity to the region the claim.
“These routine events are designed to enhance our readiness and interoperability with our partners and allies in the region,” Eastburn added. “The United States military will continue to fly sail and operate wherever international law allows at a times and places of our choosing.”
On Thursday, China criticized the U.S. mission. “As for the provocative action taken by the U.S. military aircraft, we are firmly against it and we will take all necessary means to safeguard our rights and interests,” said Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang, according to the Associated Press.
China criticizes recent missions by nuclear-capable U.S. B-52 bombers over maritime regions considered militarily sensitive by Beijing. https://t.co/srhsgXPQZb
— The Associated Press (@AP) September 27, 2018
Just last month, a U.S. Navy aircraft flew over the South China Sea while providing an exclusive tour to CNN, and received numerous warnings from Chinese military to leave the area. The aircraft was conducting a surveillance mission in accordance with international airspace and related laws. The crew was showing CNN reporters how the islands have been developed and militarized by China.
The militarization of the South China Sea has been a point of contention between the U.S. and China.
In 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to former President Barack Obama that China would not militarize the disputed islands. They have gone against that vow, however, with significant militarization activities in the past two years. China has established airfields, radar equipment, and missiles on the islands, among many other military capabilities.
Reporters asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis about this week’s bomber flights. “That just goes on, if it was 20 years ago and had they not militarized those features there it would have been just another bomber on its way to Diego Garcia or wherever,” he said, according to a CNN report.
“There’s nothing out of the ordinary about it,” he noted.
The bombers carried out their routine mission, departing from Guam and flying near the South China Sea, and then onto Japan to train with other military aircraft from the U.S. and Japan.
However, the latest mission occurred during escalating tensions with China. The ongoing trade war with the U.S. and China have led to billions in trade tariffs on one another’s goods. Additionally, China recently denied a Hong Kong port call request for the USS Wasp.
“We’re sorting out obviously a period with some tension there, trade tension and all, so we’ll get to the bottom of it but I don’t think that we’re seeing a fundamental shift in anything, we’re just going through one of those periodic points where we got to learn to manage our differences,” Mattis said of the tensions with China.