The U.S. military sent two B-52 heavy bombers for a “routine mission” in the contested South China Sea on Tuesday, just days after Defense Secretary Jim Mattis lambasted Beijing’s continued militarization of its outposts in the strategic waterway.
The U.S. Pacific Air Forces, which oversees operations in the region, told The Japan Times that the two nuclear-capable bombers departed a navy facility on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean for training “in the vicinity of the South China Sea” prior to returning to Diego Garcia.
The exact location of the training mission was unclear, as the U.S. military does not discuss specifics for operational security reasons, but Aircraft Spots, a Twitter account that tracks aircraft and U.S. Air Force flights, tweeted a photo of a flight path that showed the bombers had passed near or over the disputed Spratly island chain.
CNN, quoting a U.S. government source with knowledge of the flyover, said both B-52s had been instructed to fly about 20 miles (32 km) from the islands.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday that she hoped the U.S. could clarify whether it thought sending “this type of offensive weapon” to the South China Sea counted as militarization.
The U.S. should stop hyping up the issue of militarization and provoking trouble, she added.
“Running amuck is risky,” Hua said.
“China won’t be scared by any so-called military ship or aircraft, and we will only even more staunchly all necessary steps to defend the country’s sovereignty and security, to protect the peace and stability of the South China Sea region.”
Beijing has built up a series of military outposts in the South China Sea, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims.
As part of what experts call a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the South China Sea, Beijing has built up seven man-made islets in the Spratlys, with three — Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief reefs — all boasting military-grade airfields. Last month, the Chinese Air Force landed bombers on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel archipelago, north of the Spratlys, as part of a training exercise. Satellite images taken May 12 showed China also appeared to have deployed truck-mounted surface-to-air missiles or anti-ship cruise missiles at Woody, while anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-air missiles were also placed on its largest bases in the Spratlys.
All of these moves came despite a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping not to further militarize the islets.
Washington has blasted Beijing for the moves, fearing the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, and has conducted a number of so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the area. It has also flown bombers on training missions over the South China Sea, with the most recent known operation taking place in late April.
Tuesday’s flyover came after Mattis, speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue regional security forum on Saturday, called Beijing out over its militarization of the islands, accusing China of “intimidation and coercion” in the region, and making clear that the U.S. “is in the Indo-Pacific to stay.”
He said the Trump administration’s recent decision to rescind an invite to China for a multinational naval exercise this summer was an “initial response” to Beijing’s activity in the South China Sea. The U.S. defense chief called Washington’s action a “relatively small consequence,” adding that he believed there could be “much larger consequences in the future.”
Speaking at the Singapore conference, He Lei, of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Sciences, said Beijing has every right to continue to militarize its islets in the South China Sea.
“It is China’s sovereign and legal right for China to place our army and military weapons there. We see any other country that tries to make noise about this as interfering in our internal affairs,” He said.
Last week, the Pentagon ratcheted up rhetoric about the militarization of the islands, even as the Trump administration looks to China for cooperation on the North Korean nuclear issue.
Asked by a reporter about the U.S. ability to “blow apart” one of the man-made islets, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, director of the Joint Staff, was sanguine.
“I would just tell you that the United States military has had a lot of experience in the Western Pacific taking down small islands,” McKenzie said, making reference to U.S. amphibious landings and the capture of Japanese-held islands during World War II.
In a commentary, China’s state-run Global Times took aim at McKenzie’s remarks, saying that Beijing, too, “has the ability to destroy any source of attack that threatens to strike a Chinese island, including destroying supportive maritime platforms and military bases.”
“What does it mean to destroy a Chinese island?” the stridently nationalist tabloid wrote. “It is a declaration of war on China. We do not believe the U.S. government would dare to attempt such folly against a nuclear power, although the current administration is pretty much a bigger showoff than its predecessors.”