U.S. B-52 bombers have recently conducted transit operations in the South China Sea and East China Sea, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
Late Tuesday the heavy bombers “participated in a regularly scheduled, combined operation in the East China Sea,” Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said.
A defense official said the nuclear-capable aircrafts 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.
China has claimed large swaths of the strategic waterway, including waters close to Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam, and built up a series of islands and maritime features, turning them into military facilities. Vietnam calls the waters the East Sea.
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 U.S. 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 $200 billion of its imports.
China has reacted angrily, and this week scrapped a U.S. warship’s planned port visit to Hong Kong and canceled a meeting between the head of the Chinese navy and his American counterpart.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was not concerned the U.S. transit flights would increase tensions with China.
“If it was 20 years ago and they have not militarized 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 U.S. 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.”
“We’re just going through one of those periodic points where we’ve got to learn to manage our differences,” he said.