WASHINGTON • Two United States B-52 bombers flew close this week to disputed islands in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing and were given verbal warnings from a Chinese air traffic controller, the Pentagon has said.
It is the latest challenge from Washington to Beijing over the fate of the Spratly Islands, after the guided missile destroyer USS Lassen last month sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of seven artificial islands built up by China in the past year.
It also comes ahead of a visit to Asia next week by US President Barack Obama that will see territorial disputes at the fore of discussions with regional leaders, several of whom have claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.
"On a flight that took off and returned to Guam on Nov 8 and 9 respectively, two B-52s flying a routine mission in international airspace in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea received two verbal warnings from a Chinese ground controller despite never venturing within 15 nautical miles of any feature," Pentagon spokesman Bill Urban said on Thursday. "Both aircraft continued their mission without incident, and at all times operated fully in accordance with international law."
Washington has said that China's transformation of geographical features in the Spratlys into artificial islands capable of supporting military facilities poses a threat to freedom of navigation in the area.
Beijing has repeatedly insisted it protects such freedoms while claiming sovereignty over almost the whole of the South China Sea, even areas close to the coasts of other states. It has built two lighthouses in the Paracel islands and two in the Spratly archipelago, along with other civilian facilities that China says will serve the public good by providing bases for search and rescue operations and meteorological information. The construction is spooking other claimant nations, which are concerned China will use the facilities to boost its argument for sovereignty.
The US has said it will continue conducting regular patrols to assure unimpeded passage in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan have rival claims there.
In Beijing, asked about the latest US patrol, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China respected all countries exercising freedom of navigation and overflight in line with international law.
"We resolutely oppose any country, in the name of freedom of navigation and overflight, harming and violating international law, harming China's sovereignty and security interests," he added yesterday.
Meanwhile, US National Security Adviser Susan Rice said in Washington that territorial claims in the South China Sea would feature prominently during Mr Obama's trip to Asia.
His first stop will be Manila for a two-day meeting starting on Wednesday with economic leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) forum summit, at which Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be present. The US President will then go to Kuala Lumpur for Asean and East Asia summits.
Ms Rice said: "This will be a central issue of discussion both at the East Asia Summit as well as at the Asean-US Summit and the other engagements that we have throughout our visit to Asia."
But Mr Hong said the South China Sea should not be a subject for discussion at the meetings. "The East Asia Summit and relevant meetings focus on regional cooperation and development," he said. "They are not an appropriate place for discussing the South China Sea issue."
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG