An American B-52 bomber on a routine mission has flown within two nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the South China Sea, a flight described as "unintentional" by the United States but denounced by Beijing as a "serious military provocation".
The flight was likely the closest the US military has come to Chinese- claimed territory since Washington launched freedom of navigation operations in October in the region. The operations are aimed at challenging China's claims of territorial waters around the artificial islands.
Beijing has filed a formal complaint with the US Embassy in China, in the latest instance of escalating tensions between both sides over the key waterway, amid overlapping territorial claims by China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Chinese Defence Ministry said the incident took place on Dec 10 around the Cuarteron Reef, which lies in the disputed Spratly islands claimed by China and the Philippines. It said the military closely monitored two US B-52 bombers after they entered the airspace above the Spratlys, raised the alert level of troops stationed around the reef and issued warnings till the planes left.
The ministry said the bombers followed a number of military vessels and jets that the US had deployed recently to the South China Sea in a show of force to stir tensions, "which endangers the safety of the Chinese personnel near the islands and reefs and damages regional peace and stability".
This latest incident is unlikely to hurt bilateral ties or worsen the South China Sea situation. The Defence Ministry has to deliver tough rhetoric.
NANJING UNIVERSITY ANALYST ZHU FENG, executive director of the China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea
"The US' actions are a serious act of military provocation, which further complicates and militarises the South China Sea situation. We urge the US to take immediate steps to prevent a repeat of such dangerous actions so as not to destroy the bilateral and military relationship," said the Defence Ministry.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that one of the two B-52s had entered unintentionally within two nautical miles of the reef.
Pentagon spokesman Bill Urban, a navy commander, was quoted as saying that the US regularly conducts B-52 training missions but had no plan to fly within 12 nautical miles of any artificial island. Under international maritime law, states can claim territorial waters within 12 nautical miles from their coasts.
An unnamed US defence official said bad weather had caused the pilot to fly off course and to stray into airspace claimed by China.
Nanjing University analyst Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, said he believed the B-52 incident was unintentional as the "US would not shy away from announcing a freedom of navigation operation".
"This latest incident is unlikely to hurt bilateral ties or worsen the South China Sea situation. The Defence Ministry has to deliver tough rhetoric to show the domestic audience its resolve to defend national interests," he told The Sunday Times.
In recent weeks, the US and Australia have launched freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
China on Wednesday held a massive drill in the South China Sea - its second combat exercise in a month - mobilising forces from its South, North and East Sea fleets. It also added a new world-class missile destroyer to its South Sea Fleet last weekend, its third this year.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi insisted yesterday that the situation in the South China Sea was "relatively stable" and urged countries beyond the region to help it to stay that way, rather than fuel conflict there.
"Some countries outside the region are concerned about this region and we totally understand that, but I think these states need to support attempts to keep this region stable rather than just aggravating tensions or playing countries off against each other," he was cited as saying during a visit to Berlin.