TOKYO - Two U.S bombers flew over the disputed South China Sea, the U.S. Air Force said Friday, asserting the right to treat the region as international territory despite China’s claims in the busy waterway.
The flight from Guam Thursday came as U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping prepare for a likely meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany.
The two leaders were expected to discuss what China can do to rein in North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapon programs.
North Korea fired an intercontinental ballistic missile Tuesday that some experts believe has the range to reach Alaska and Hawaii and perhaps the U.S. Pacific Northwest.
While Trump has been seeking China’s help to press North Korea, the U.S. military has been asserting its “freedom of navigation” rights in the South China Sea, at the risk of angering China.
Asked about the flight by the two U.S. 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 claims nearly all of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes each year, a stance contested by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. Beijing usually protests against freedom of navigation operations such as bomber flights.
The United States has criticized China’s build-up of military facilities in the South China Sea, concerned that they could be used to extend Beijing’s strategic reach.
The two Lancers that made the latest flight had earlier trained with Japanese jet fighters in the neighboring East China Sea, the first time the two forces had conducted joint night-time drills.
“This is a clear demonstration of our ability to conduct seamless operations with all our allies,” U.S. Air Force spokesman Major Ryan Simpson said in a statement.
Two U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers flew from Guam over the South China Sea last month, while a U.S. warship carried out a maneuvering drill within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s artificial islands in the waterway in late May.