After announcing that the U.S. presence in the South China Sea would become “routine” as a challenge to Chinese territorial claims this month, the Pentagon announced Thursday it had flown two strategic bombers in the region, which were contacted by Chinese authorities but flew through without incident.
Reuters notes that the B-52s flew on November 8 and 9 and did not come within a 12-nautical-mile zone established by China. They did fly “in the area” of the hotly contested Spratly Islands, where China has been building a series of military facilities and artificial islands in the past year. Pentagon spokesman Commander Bill Urban explained that the aircraft were on “a routine mission in the SCS (South China Sea),” with another spokesman adding that these missions happen “in that part of the world all the time.”
Speaking of the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that his nation “resolutely oppose[s] any country, in the name of freedom of navigation and overflight, harming and violating international law, harming China’s sovereignty and security interests,” though he did not consider this instance to fall into that category of behavior.
That response was tepid compared to statements by the Foreign Ministry and Chinese media regarding the excursion by the USS Lassen last month, which navigated through the zone China claims as its own, despite having no support in the international community. State outlet Xinhua described the Lassen‘s passage near the Spratly Islands as “a willful and harmful game of brinkmanship mounted to flex U.S. muscles at China’s doormat and reassert Washington’s dominant presence in the region,” also calling it “highly irresponsible and dangerous.”
Following China’s reaction to the Lassen’s mission, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter personally navigated through the South China Sea onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, bringing along Malaysian Minister of Defense Hishammuddin Hussein as his guest. Malaysia strongly disputes China’s claims in the sea.
China claims most of the South China Sea as its own, usurping territory disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei. Many of these countries, as well as allies like Japan and Indonesia, will be present next week during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference. President Barack Obama is expected to bring up the South China Sea dispute at that event. According to National Security Adviser Susan Rice, the territorial dispute will be “a central issue of discussion” for the United States.
“On the part of APEC, we are promoting economic development, economic prosperity. And to be able to achieve that, we need peace and stability in the region,” Philippine Foreign Affairs Spokesman Charles Jose said of the matter. The Philippines, which contests the Spratly Islands, is hosting the conference.
Reuters reports that China has already objected to having such a discussion at the APEC summit. “The East Asia Summit and relevant meetings focus on regional cooperation and development. They are not an appropriate place for discussing the South China Sea issue,” spokesman Hong said.
In addition to America’s intentions at the summit, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that he expected to discuss the subject at this and numerous other regional conferences in the coming weeks. “The rule of law should be carried out to preserve the open, free and peaceful sea,” he said in Tokyo this week, noting that Japan is an interested party in the dispute because “resources and goods enter Japan through many seas including the South China Sea.” While Japan has no territorial interests in the South China Sea, it claims the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China has taken over by imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over them.
In response, spokesman Hong has reiterated that Japan “as a non-relevant party, has no right to make irresponsible remarks on the sovereignty of the South China Sea islands.”