The Pentagon describes it as a “routine mission.” But the latest incident of two U.S. B-52 aircraft flying this week in the vicinity of the East China Sea has done nothing to alleviate recent tensions between the U.S. and China.
It was “a regularly scheduled, combined operation in the vicinity of the East China Sea,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn told CNN of the B-52s, escorted by Japanese fighter jets, flying from Guam and through the South China Sea.
Defense Secretary James Mattis said “there’s nothing out of the ordinary” about the flights, which began in June.
The mission may be have been routine, but it doesn’t make it any less irritating to the Chinese government. That’s because the U.S. bombers flew over what ABC News described as an area where China has declared “an air defense identification zone and claims uninhabited islands controlled by Japan.”
ABC also points out that its an area where China has spent the past few years building seven islands on reefs and equipping them with military facilities such as airstrips, radar domes and missile systems in an effort to lay claim to the area, through which trillions of dollars worth of trade passes each year.
But the U.S. continues to regularly move ships and aircraft through the area in an effort to show it is still international territory.
ABC News reported that China called the missions “provocative” and promised to “take all necessary means to safeguard our rights and interests,” according to China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang.
It’s worth noting the other flare-ups in U.S.-China relations during the past week. As CNN reported, the Chinese government denied a U.S. Navy warship permission to visit Hong Kong, the U.S. sanctioned a Chinese defense entity over its purchase of Russian-made weapons, the State Department approved a military equipment sale to Taiwan and a high-ranking Chinese naval officer canceled a meeting with U.S. naval officials.
After similar flyovers by B-52s in June, the China’s Foreign Ministry basically told the U.S. to stop trying to show who’s boss in the region. It also said that continued movements of ships and planes in a region China believes it controls will only make China react with “more firm measures” against the U.S.
“Is the U.S. trying to exert more pressure on China’s trade by sending a B-52 bombers to the South China Sea?” one headline in a state-run Chinese tabloid read, according to a Business Insider report in June. A flight over the South China Sea that month had China’s Foreign Ministry accusing the United States of “running amok.”
When Mattis spoke to reporters on Wednesday, he downplayed the tensions.
“We’re sorting out obviously a period with some tension there, trade tension and all, so we’ll get to the bottom of it but I don’t think that we’re seeing a fundamental shift in anything, we’re just going through one of those periodic points where we got to learn to manage our differences,” Mattis said, according to CNN.
Business Insider, quoting two different sources, suggested the use of such powerful aircraft as the B-52s is meant to send a signal to other countries in the region.
First, Pentagon spokesman Eastburn told Business Insider that “the United States military will continue to fly sail and operate wherever international law allows at a times and places of our choosing.”
Meanwhile, Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs told Business Insider that these recent missions “are consistent with international law and United States’s long-standing and well-known freedom of navigation policies.”
For now, it appears the U.S. will continue “business as usual” with scheduled exercises in the region regardless of China’s complaints about it. The fact the U.S. is flying B-52 suggests that message is sending that message with an exclamation point.
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