Two US B-52 strategic bombers flew near artificial Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea this week and were contacted by Chinese ground controllers but continued their mission undeterred, the Pentagon said.
The latest US patrol in the disputed South China Sea occurred in advance of President Barack Obama’s visit to the region next week to attend Asia-Pacific summits where he is expected the reassert Washington’s commitment to freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.
US Navy sailors participate in a training exercise on the deck of the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen in the South China Sea on October 28, around the time that the warship cruised through an area that China claims as its territorial waters. Photo: Reuters
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$5 trillion in global trade passes every year, and the United States has said it will continue conducting patrols to assure unimpeded passage. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims in the region.
In the latest mission, which occurred overnight on November 8-9, the bombers flew “in the area” of the Spratly Islands but did not come within the 12-nautical-mile (22km) zones that China claims as territory around islands it has built in the chain, said Commander Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman.
“The B-52s were on a routine mission in the SCS [South China Sea],” taking off from and returning to Guam, Urban said.
A file photo of the USS Lassen (front), which entered waters claimed by China last month. Photo: EPA
Chinese ground controllers contacted the bombers but the aircraft continued their mission unabated, Urban said.
“We conduct B-52 flights in international air space in that part of the world all the time,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook told a news briefing earlier on Thursday.
Last month, a US warship challenged territorial limits around one of China’s man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago with a so-called freedom-of-navigation patrol, the most significant US challenge yet to territorial limits China claims around its new islands. China reacted angrily to the patrol.
A photo taken on April 2, 2015, by satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe shows what is claimed to be an under-construction airstrip in the Spratly Islands in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Photo: AFP
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said he did not know whether the South China Sea would be on the formal agenda at any of the three Asia summits that Obama will attend but added that it would be “on the minds and lips” of world leaders who gather there.
Obama’s first stop will be Manila for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit, where Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be present. The US president will then go to Kuala Lumpur for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and East Asia summits.
“We are quite concerned about protecting freedom of navigation, the free flow of commerce in the South China Sea,” Earnest told reporters. “And we’re going to continue to encourage all parties, big and small, to resolve their differences diplomatically and to not try to use their comparative size and strength to intimidate their neighbours.”
In an apparent show of US resolve, Obama will take part in what the White House described as “an event that showcases US maritime security assistance to the Philippines”. US officials did not elaborate.
But in September, Navy Admiral Harry Harris, head of the US Pacific Command, visited the National Coast Watch Centre, a facility at the Philippines coast guard headquarters that Washington has helped Manila build to improve its ability to monitor developments in the South China Sea.