The U.S. has flown two B-1B bombers over the South China Sea, the air force said Friday, part of operations intended to demonstrate Washington’s commitment to freedom of navigation in the contested waters and airspace.
China, which claims almost all of the strategic waterway, slammed the move, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang maintaining that freedom of navigation or overflight in the East and South China seas was not a problem.
“But China resolutely opposes individual countries using the banner of freedom of navigation and overflight to flaunt military force and harm China’s sovereignty and security,” he said.
Beijing has built a string of militarized outposts on its man-made islets in the South China Sea’s Spratly chain as it seeks to reinforce effective control of much of the waterway, through which $5 trillion in trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims.
The flight by the Guam-based bombers came after the U.S. Air Force’s first nighttime joint exercises with fighter jets from the Air Self-Defense Force. Those exercises were held over the East China Sea, where China is involved in a separate territorial dispute over the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyus.
Experts say technological advances by China and and growing nationalism there, combined with ramped-up moves by Washington in the South China Sea could mean dangerous, close-proximity encounters in the air and sea will become a more common occurrence.
Collin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said China’s more advanced aircraft and its airstrips on the artificial islands in the Spratlys give it more latitude to respond promptly and firmly.
“These are the enablers,” Koh said. “What is of concern is that China’s disdain for foreign military activities in and over waters it claims. It wasn’t in a position back then to respond more resolutely to those activities because of the aforementioned capability limitations. Now that these are improved, Beijing would be more inclined to challenge these foreign activities.”
News of the bombers’ flight also came as U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, prepared to meet on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in Germany. North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon programs — including its test flight earlier this week of a long-range missile capable of striking Alaska — was expected to top the agenda.
Trump, who has urged China to do more to pressure North Korea, had appeared to take a softer line on the South China Sea dispute in hopes of persuading Beijing to rein in its isolated neighbor.
But recent weeks have seen a sharp uptick in moves by the White House that have likely stoked anger in China.
In a phone call Monday, Xi told Trump that Sino-U.S. relations have been hit by “negative factors” following the days of U.S. actions that have vexed Beijing.
Earlier this week, the Pentagon conducted its second known “freedom of navigation” operation under Trump, sailing a warship within 12 nautical miles (22 km) of Triton Island in the Paracel archipelago, south of the Spratlys.
Just days ahead of that operation, the Trump administration also unveiled new sanctions against a Chinese bank linked to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs and announced a new $1.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.
Last month, two U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers flew a 10-hour mission from Guam through the South China Sea in an operation with a navy guided-missile destroyer.
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