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China has frequently complained about US B-52s carrying out missions over the disputed waters. Photo: AP

US bomber mission over South China Sea risks inflaming tensions ahead of Asean defence summit

B-52 exercise over disputed waters risks Beijing’s ire as Pentagon chief James Mattis is expected to meet China’s defence minister Wei Fenghe in Singapore

Two US B-52 bombers have flown over the disputed South China Sea, in a move that could inflame tensions ahead of a key regional defence summit in Singapore where the US and Chinese defence ministers are slated to meet.

The two US Air Force bombers departed from the Andersen Air Force Base in Guam as part of a “routine training mission in the vicinity of the South China Sea”, the Pacific Air Forces said in a statement on Thursday.

Tuesday’s operation was part of the US Indo-Pacific Command’s continuous bomber presence operations since March 2004, and was “consistent with international law and [a] long-standing commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” it said.

South China Sea is Beijing’s priority, US think tank says

The mission, which is likely to draw Beijing’s ire, was carried out while US Defence Secretary James Mattis was visiting Vietnam before heading to Singapore on Thursday.

There he will attend the annual Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) defence ministers’ meeting, where he is expected to meet his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe.

Mattis cancelled a proposed meeting with Wei in Beijing after a near-collision between a US and a Chinese warship last month. The US later said the meeting was called off after Mattis was told that Wei was not available to meet him.

US, Chinese warships within metres of collision in South China Sea

But Randall Schriver, the US assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs, told reporters this week that Beijing had requested the Singapore meeting, signalling a potential upturn in military relations.

He said there were frictions after Washington slapped sanctions on a key unit of the Chinese military in September for buying Russian fighter jets and missiles, but that may be a “relatively short bump in the road”.

“The fact that he’s meeting with Minister Wei is some evidence that the Chinese are interested in keeping things normal and stable, as are we,” he said. “Our impression is that the [Chinese] military wants to keep things stable.”

But the latest US operations in the South China Sea this week may anger Beijing. The Chinese government has frequently protested about American bombers’ “routine training missions” in the skies above the disputed waters, where Beijing has multiple overlapping claims with its regional neighbours.

US defence chief Mattis hits out at ‘predatory’ Chinese behaviour

Following the most recent B-52 mission in the area in September, China’s defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang called the action “provocative,” and said Beijing would “take all necessary means to safeguard our rights and interests”.

Earlier this week, Mattis criticised China’s “predatory” behaviour towards smaller countries, although he stressed the US was “not out to contain China”.

Bilateral ties have been rocked in recent months by a series of events, including the near-collision between the two ships in the South China Sea at the end of September.

“In the South China Sea, over many American administrations, we have said that in international airspace, international waters, we will fly or sail. You’ve seen that continue,” Mattis said on Monday. “We remain highly concerned with continued militarisation of features in the South China Sea.”