US flies B-52 bombers over South and East China Seas as tensions soar over trade

US Defence Secretary James Mattis said he was not concerned the US transit flights would increase tensions with China, while Beijing called the flights ‘provocative’

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 7:47am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2018, 6:38pm

US B-52 bombers have conducted transit operations in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, amid soaring tensions with Beijing over trade tariffs.

China on Thursday slammed the flyovers as “provocative”.

Late on Tuesday the heavy bombers took part in “a regularly scheduled, combined operation in the East China Sea”, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said.

A defence official said the nuclear-capable aircraft were escorted by Japanese fighters and the flight was part of the Pentagon’s “continuous bomber presence” in the region.

Earlier in the week, B-52s flew through “international airspace over the South China Sea”, Eastburn said.

Such flights are common and usually upset Beijing. China’s Defence Ministry said it would respond with “necessary means”.

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“As for the provocative action taken by the US military aircraft, we are firmly against it and we will take all necessary means to safeguard our rights and interests,” the ministry’s spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a monthly news briefing.

In June, China’s foreign ministry said no military ship or aircraft could scare China away from its resolve to protect its territory after US B-52 bombers flew near disputed islands in the South China Sea.

China has claimed large swathes of the strategic waterway and built up a series of islands and maritime features, turning them into military facilities.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims to the region, and an international maritime tribunal ruled in 2016 that China’s claims have no legal basis.

Eastburn said the flights were part of “regularly scheduled operations”.

The United States rejects China’s territorial claims and routinely says the military will “continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows at times and places of our choosing”.

Washington this week enacted new tariffs against China covering another US$200 billion of its imports.

China has reacted angrily, and this week scrapped a US warship’s planned port visit to Hong Kong and cancelled a meeting between the head of the Chinese navy and his American counterpart.

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US President Donald Trump also accused China of seeking to meddle in the November 6 US congressional elections on Wednesday, saying Beijing did not want his Republican Party to do well because of his pugnacious stance on trade.

Defence Secretary James Mattis said he was not concerned the US transit flights would increase tensions with China.

“If it was 20 years ago and they have not militarised those features there, it would have just been another bomber on its way to Diego Garcia or whatever,” he told Pentagon reporters, referring to the US military base in the Indian Ocean. “So there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it, nor about our ships sailing through there.”

The Pentagon chief went on to say there is no “fundamental shift in anything”.

Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, Reuters