After weeks of seeming relative quiet in the South China Sea, which previously witnessed steadily ratcheting tensions as US naval ships and planes passed near Chinese military assets with increased frequency in the latter part of 2018, the US has once again risked an encounter with Beijing by flying a pair of B-52 strategic bombers in close proximity with China.
The US Pacific Air Forces confirmed in a statement on Monday, “Two B-52H Stratofortress bombers took off from Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, and participated in routine training missions, March 4, 2019.” It was the first such flight through the area of the South China Sea since November.
Two US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress long-range bombers took off from Guam to conduct "routine training missions" over disputed airspaces of the South and East China seas, according to the statement.
“One bomber conducted training in the vicinity of the South China Sea before returning to Guam, while the other conducted training in the vicinity of Japan in coordination with the U.S. Navy and alongside our Japanese air force counterparts before returning to Guam,” the US Pacific Air Forces continued.
An ABC report identified the operations as part of the the U.S. Air Force’s Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) based out of Andersen AFB in Guam, which involves rotating B-1, B-52 and B-2 long-range bombers to conduct training missions in Asia.
Locked in a continued trade war with Washington, Beijing was no doubt angered by the patrols though remained uncharacteristically quiet in its response, which is typically immediate. The last times B-52s transited the East and South China Seas were in September and in November of 2018.
Meanwhile, in a surprising moment of possible tension among allies the Philippines' top defense official on Tuesday has publicly questioned the US maneuvers.
Speaking Tuesday, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) runs the risk of causing "confusion and chaos during a crisis," especially as the US ramps ups such aerial patrols of the region and "freedom of navigation" exercises.
"The Philippines is not in a conflict with anyone and will not be at war with anyone in the future. But the United States, with the increased and frequent passage of its naval vessels in the West Philippine Sea, is more likely to be involved in a shooting war. In such a case and on the basis of the MDT, the Philippines will be automatically involved," Lorenzana said, according to CNN Philippines, using the local term for the South China Sea (the West Philippine Sea).
The United States, for its part, has long held its operations, even when sailing close to disputed islands claimed by China or flying overhead, are intended to assert that the area is international waters and in international airspace.