Two US B-52 bombers flew near contested islands in the South China Sea Tuesday, according to a statement from Pacific Air Forces.
The two B-52H Stratofortress bombers, which are based in Guam, “participated in a routine training mission in the vicinity of the South China Sea,” the statement said, adding that the flight was part of US Indo-Pacific Command’s “Continuous Bomber Presence operations” which have been ongoing since March 2004.
The Pentagon would not confirm which islands the B-52s flew by, but recent tensions have focused on the Spratly Islands.
The US regularly flies aircraft in the South China Sea, but Beijing is particularly sensitive about the operations when they come near areas where the Chinese government has built islands and established military facilities on disputed maritime features.
Pacific Air Forces said Tuesday’s “mission is consistent with international law and United States’ long-standing commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
The “Chinese have successfully militarized some of these outposts and their behaviors become more assertive and we’re trying to have an appropriate response,” US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Randall Schriver told reporters traveling in the region with Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
News of the bomber flight comes as top Pentagon officials said that China’s defense minister has agreed to meet with Mattis, a meeting that was previously canceled over a dispute involving US sanctions against Beijing.
A Chinese destroyer recently sailed within 45 yards of the USS Decatur, forcing the American warship to maneuver to avoid a collision while it was sailing near the disputed Spratly Islands.
The US labeled the Chinese warship’s actions unsafe and unprofessional while Beijing said the US was threatening the safety and sovereignty of China.
Pentagon officials have said that despite the recent incident involving the Decatur, the US would continue such freedom of navigation operations.
“What we don’t want to do is reward aggressive behavior like you saw with the Decatur incident by modifying our behavior,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joe Felter told reporters.
“That’s just not going happen we’re going to continue to exercise our rights under international law and encourage all our partners to do the same,” he added.