- US bombers flew over the South China Sea on Tuesday, amid Chinese military exercises around Taiwan.
- The flight may have been meant as a message to China.
- But China has responded forcefully, saying it has “endless means” to deal with Taiwan.
Two US B-52H Stratofortress bombers flew within 155 miles of the southern Chinese coast on Tuesday, according to media reports that described the operation as a response to recent Chinese military exercises in the area.
The flight was first noticed by Aircraft Spots, a Twitter account that tracks aircraft and US Air Force flights.
The account identified B-52s with the call signs HERO01 and HERO02 departing Anderson Air Force Base and heading toward the South China Sea, refuelling along the way from US Air Force KC-135 tanker aircraft.
HERO01 FLT's last position about an hour ago… I believe HERO & ZELDA FLT's are conducting AAR near Okinawa pic.twitter.com/f2zOP0P2wI
— Aircraft Spots (@AircraftSpots) April 24, 2018
The bombers passed over the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines and flew over the South China Sea, coming as close as 155 miles to the coast of China’s Guangdong province, according to Taiwan News, which cited Chinese-language United Daily News.
The bombers circled over the Pratas Islands, also called the Dongsha Islands, for about an hour before heading to the Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, according to Asia Times. The islands are controlled by Taiwan but claimed by China.
Reports cited by Taiwan News said the flight brought the bombers well within cruise-missile range of military targets in China. Chinese news portal Sina said Thursday that the B-52s were vulnerable to Chinese radar and early-warning systems, as well as to S-400 antiaircraft systems imported from Russia.
The Taiwan-based news site Liberty News said that US strategic bombers rarely flew over waters close to China’s coast, where Chinese military aircraft fly frequently. A spokeswoman for US Pacific Air Forces described the operation as routine.
The two B-52s, deployed earlier this year from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, left Guam and “transited to the vicinity of the South China Sea” on April 24, Air Force Capt. Victoria Hight, chief of public affairs for the US Pacific Air Forces, told Business Insider in an email late on Thursday.
“The B-52Hs conducted training and then transited to the vicinity of Okinawa to conduct training with USAF F-15C Strike Eagles, before returning to Guam,” Hight said, adding that continuous bomber presence missions have taken place routinely since 2004 and “are intended to maintain the readiness of US forces.”
Such missions, Hight said, were “in accordance with international law.”
Thomas Harvey III, the acting assistant secretary of defence for strategy, plans, and capabilities, told South China Morning Post that US bombers had been deployed to assure US allies in the region.
“China has said they want us to leave the region. We are not going to leave the region,” he said. He added that a miscalculation leading to a larger conflict is “always a possibility when you have military operated in the same space. We will obviously do what we can to obviously avoid that.”
Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Wu Qian was asked about the US bombers at a news briefing on Thursday, saying only that Chinese armed forces had the situation under control.
The US bomber flight comes amid a series of Chinese military exercises, including live-fire drills, near Taiwan that a government spokesman said were meant to send a message to Taipei that Beijing would take further steps if Taiwanese independence forces continue doing as they please. China considers the self-ruled island of Taiwan to be its territory.
Beijing’s hostility toward Taiwan has grown since Tsai Ing-wen, of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, was elected president in 2016.
Chinese aircraft also flew around Taiwan on Thursday. The Chinese air force said it scrambled fighter jets, early-warning aircraft, reconnaissance planes, and H-6K bombers from multiple airports for “combat military drills.” It said the H-6K bombers had conducted numerous drills around Taiwan since April 18 “to improve its ability to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
A editorial published Friday by the Chinese state-run tabloid Global Times said that if the US bomber flight was meant to send a message to China about Taiwan, it would not work.
“The US cannot prevent the mainland exerting military pressure on Taiwan,” it said. “If the Taiwan authorities openly promote the ‘Taiwan independence’ policy and cut off all official contacts with the mainland, the mainland will deem Taiwan a hostile regime and has endless means to deal with it.”
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