US bombers fly over South China Sea to assert right

TOKYO • Two US bombers have flown over the disputed South China Sea, the United States Air Force said yesterday, asserting the right to treat the region as international territory despite China's claim to virtually all of the waterway.

The flight by the B-1B Lancer bombers from Guam on Thursday came as US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping prepare for a meeting on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in Germany in which they were expected to discuss what China can do to rein in North Korea's missile and nuclear weapon programmes.

North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday that some experts believe has the range to reach Alaska, Hawaii and perhaps the US Pacific north-west.

While Mr Trump has been seeking China's help to press North Korea, the US military has been asserting its "freedom of navigation" rights in the South China Sea, at the risk of angering China.

The two US Lancers had earlier trained with Japanese jet fighters in the East China Sea, the first time the two forces had conducted joint night-time drills, said the US Pacific Air Forces public affairs office in a statement.

The mission "demonstrates how the US will continue to exercise the rights of freedom of navigation anywhere international law allows", it said. "Flying and training at night with our allies in a safe, effective manner is an important capability shared between the US and Japan," said Major Ryan Simpson, Pacific Air Forces chief of bomber operations.

The joint military flight demonstrates US-Japanese "solidarity... to defend against provocative and destabilising actions in the Pacific theatre", the statement added.

Asked yesterday about the flight by the two US bombers, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said there was no problem with freedom of navigation or overflight for the East and South China seas. "But China resolutely opposes individual countries using the banner of freedom of navigation and overflight to flaunt military force and harm China's sovereignty and security," he said.

China's Defence Ministry, in a short statement sent to Reuters, said China always maintained its vigilance and "effectively monitors relevant countries' military activities next to China".

"The Chinese military will resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and security as well as regional peace and stability," it added without elaborating.

The US has criticised China's build-up of military facilities on South China Sea reefs and islands it has constructed, concerned they could be used to extend its strategic reach. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims in the sea, through which about US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) in sea trade passes each year.

Last month, two US Lancers flew from Guam over the South China Sea, while a US warship carried out a manoeuvring drill within 12 nautical miles of one of China's artificial islands in the waterway in late May.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 08, 2017, with the headline 'US bombers fly over South China Sea to assert right'. Print Edition | Subscribe