The United States flew two B-52 bombers near the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Monday following several similar displays to respond to China’s militarization of the region.
Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Chris Logan said that the flyover formed part of the U.S. Pacific Command’s “continuous bomber presence” intended to “maintain the readiness of US forces.”
“US Pacific Command’s CBP missions, which have been routinely employed since March 2004, are flown in accordance with international law,” Logan said.
The exercises happened to take place shortly after U.S. Secretary of Defense Gen. Jim Mattis delivered a speech in Singapore on Saturday where he accused Beijing of “intimidation and coercion” in making its territorial claims.
Over recent years, China has aggressively expanded operations of its naval and coast guard forces in an attempt to stake their claim on the territory, deploying weaponry including anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and electronic jammers. However, Chinese authorities insist their presence in the region are merely for search and rescue and research purposes.
China claims most of the South China Sea, including territory belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia. The Spratly Islands are largely Philippine and Vietnamese.
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s Foreign Affairs minister, Alan Peter Cayetano, recently declared that Duterte was ready to “go to war” with China amid claims that they are illegally mining natural resources.
“Nobody can extract natural resources there on their own,” Cayetano said. “The president has declared that. If anyone gets the natural resources in the West Philippine Sea-South China Sea, he will go to war.”
“Despite China’s claims to the contrary, the placement of these weapons systems is tied directly to military use for the purposes of intimidation and coercion,” he said. “Make no mistake: America is in the Indo-Pacific to stay. This is our priority theater.”
“We are aware China will face an array of challenges and opportunities in coming years, we are prepared to support China’s choices if they promote long-term peace and prosperity for all in this dynamic region” he continued.
Beijing reacted angrily to Mattis’s comments. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying compared Mattis’s speech to a “thief crying, ‘Stop thief!’ ”
“Why does the US choose to sail every now and then close to Chinese South China Sea islands and reefs? What is the US trying to do?” she remarked.