Tensions in the South China Sea increased on Tuesday after the US sent two US B-52 bombers flew within the vicinity of the contested Spratly Islands, according to a statement from US Pacific Air Forces, which oversees air operations in the region.
The flyover came days after Secretary of Defense James Mattis called Beijing out over its militarization of the islands, accusing China of “intimidation and coercion” in the Indo-Pacific, making clear the US has no plans to leave the region and prompting a furious Chinese response.
Beijing claims the Spratly Islands, but those claims aren’t recognized by the US or by China’s neighbors — Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan — which also say the islands are theirs. China has used geographic features in the Spratlys to build man-made islands, some of which it has equipped with military facilities, including anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles.
A US defense official who has knowledge of the mission’s original flight plan said it called for the nuclear capable B-52 bombers to fly about 20 miles from the islands.
A spokesman for the Pentagon said the mission involved the Guam-based bombers conducting “a routine training mission,” flying from Andersen Air Force Base in the US territory of Guam “to the Navy Support Facility” in the United Kingdom’s Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia.
On Tuesday, the bombers flew from Diego Garcia and conducted “training” in the vicinity of the South China Sea, returning back to Diego Garcia the same day, according to the statement from US Pacific Air Forces.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said that the Chinese are using intimidation and coercion in the region by militarizing these man-made islands. The Chinese minced few words either as Foreign Minister Hua Chunying called the latest from Washington as “blatant lies.”
“China will not be intimidated by any planes or ships. We will only be firmer in our resolve to take all necessary measures to safeguard our sovereignty and security as well as maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea.”
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