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US and Chinese bombers soar over Western Pacific as area sees ramped-up military drills

U.S. Air Force B-52H Stratofortress bomber and two Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) F-15 fighters execute a routine bilateral training mission over the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. (Courtesy photo/U.S. Indo-Pacific Command)
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B-52 bombers from Guam have trained with Air Self-Defense Force and Okinawa-based U.S. fighter jets in the Western Pacific, just days after China sent a total of six bombers and other aircraft through a key entryway into the Pacific for their own military exercises.

“Two B-52H Stratofortress bombers took off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and conducted integrated training with Koku-Jieitai (Japan Air-Self Defense Force) fighters and 18th Wing F-15s from Kadena Air Base, Japan, in the vicinity of Western Japan” on Thursday, U.S. Air Force spokeswoman Monica Urias told The Japan Times.

The mission made for a busy week in the area, with the Chinese Air Force dispatching a total of six H-6G and H-6K bombers, as well as electronic warfare and surveillance aircraft and fighter jets, through the Miyako Strait, international airspace between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako in the East China Sea, on Monday and March 30.

The Miyako Strait is widely known as the principal entryway for the Chinese Navy into the Pacific Ocean.

The ASDF scrambled fighter jets to intercept the Chinese aircraft in response both times, though Japanese airspace was not violated, according to the Defense Ministry in Tokyo.

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Thursday’s U.S. training mission with the ASDF was the first since similar exercises over the East China Sea on March 20.

Both missions were part of the so-called continuous bomber presence operations the U.S. military says have been ongoing since March 2004 and are part of the United States’ long-standing “freedom of navigation” policies.

The U.S. and Japanese militaries regularly conduct such exercises in the East China Sea, home to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, and the Western Pacific. Beijing — which also claims the Senkakus and calls them Diaoyu — often dispatches ships and aircraft to the area surrounding the tiny islets.

In November 2013, China declared an air defense identification zone, in which aircraft are supposed to identify themselves to Chinese authorities, in the East China Sea. The United States and Japan have refused to recognize the ADIZ, and many observers have viewed it as an attempt by China to bolster its claims over disputed territories, like the uninhabited Senkakus.

Beijing said in 2017 that Washington should respect the ADIZ after Chinese officials warned a U.S. bomber that it was illegally flying inside the East China Sea zone. The Pentagon rejected the Chinese call and said it would continue its flight operations in the region.

The United States is obligated to defend aggression against territories under Japanese administration under Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, and top U.S. officials have said this extends to the Senkakus.

Training missions such as Thursday’s have apparently ramped up amid protracted military and trade tensions between Washington and Beijing, with one mission on March 4 and another in January taking bombers over the East China Sea.

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The U.S. has also sent its B-52s over the disputed South China Sea — including two separate flights near some of China’s man-made islands there within the space of ten days earlier this month. Beijing has blasted the missions as “provocations.”

China’s Foreign Ministry has said no military ship or aircraft could scare Beijing away from its resolve to protect what it says is its territory. China has built up a series of military outposts in the strategic waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year.

Washington and Beijing have frequently jousted over the militarization of the South China Sea, where China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines all have competing claims.

The U.S. does not maintain any claims there, but says the operations are conducted globally with the aim of promoting freedom of navigation.

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© 2019 the Japan Times (Tokyo)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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