Two US B-52 bombers flew close to islands in the flash point South China Sea this month in a “serious military provocation”, Beijing said Saturday, as tensions simmer in the disputed waterway.
China insists it has sovereignty over virtually all of the resource-rich sea, conflicting with the various claims of several neighbouring nations, and US activity in the area has provoked Beijing’s ire several times in recent months.
“In the morning of 10 December, two US B-52 bombers entered air space over the Chinese Nansha islands and nearby areas without authorization,” Beijing’s defence ministry said, using the Chinese name for the Spratly Islands.
“This behaviour is a serious military provocation which complicates the general situation in the South China Sea, (contributing) to the militarization of the region,” the ministry said in a statement.
During the mission by the two B-52 bombers, one of the aircraft unintentionally flew within two nautical miles of an artificially constructed island, the Wall Street Journal quoted Pentagon officials as saying Friday.
This may have been because of bad weather conditions, according to officials quoted in the newspaper.
Washington said Saturday it routinely conducts training missions in the region, including the South China Sea, adding that it was investigating the reports of the bomber near the Spratly chain.
“The Chinese have raised concerns with us about the flight path of a recent training mission. We are looking into the matter,” Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told AFP.
“I will also say that for this mission there was no intention of flying within 12 nautical miles of any feature,” he added. “This was not a Freedom of Navigation Operation.”
‘Show of force’
The US has previously argued for its right to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and is critical of China building artificial islands there.
According to author and chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor Robert D. Kaplan, “the South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans — the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce.
More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide,” Kaplan wrote.
Beijing’s claims in the sea conflict with those of its regional neighbours Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Brunei.
The US has flown other B-52 bombers and sailed a guided-missile destroyer near some of the constructions in recent months.
In October, Washington infuriated Beijing when the USS Lassen guided missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of at least one land formation claimed by China in the disputed Spratlys.
“The US has continuously sent military ships and planes to make a show of force and create tensions in the waters and airspace” of the South China Sea, Beijing’s defence ministry said earlier Saturday.
“The Chinese army will take all necessary measures to defend the sovereignty and the security of the country.”
China’s military conducted war games in the area this week, with warships, submarines and fighter jets deployed over a “range of several thousand kilometers”, the People’s Liberation Army Daily said.
This week, Australia said one of its military surveillance planes had flown near disputed areas of the South China Sea. The crew reportedly heard warnings from China’s navy.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.