Two US bombers tore through the hotly-contested South China Sea on Oct. 16, 2018, an apparent power play signaling US determination to continue to fly and sail wherever international law allows ahead of a key meeting between US and Chinese defense chiefs Oct. 18, 2018.
A pair of Guam-based US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress heavy long-range bombers “participated in a routine training mission in the vicinity of the South China Sea,” Pacific Air Forces told CNN in a statement, adding that the flights were in support of US Indo-Pacific Command’s Continuous Bomber Presence, a mission focused on deterring regional challengers.
The Pentagon did not specifically identify which islands the aircraft flew by, but open-source flight tracking data suggests they may have been near the Spratly Islands, the location of a recent showdown between a Chinese destroyer and a US warship carrying out a close pass of the islands. During the incident, which occurred late September 2018, a Chinese naval vessel nearly collided with destroyer USS Decatur.
Following that incident, Vice President Mike Pence warned that “we will not stand down.”
“What we don’t want to do is reward aggressive behavior like you saw with the Decatur incident by modifying our behavior,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South and Southeast Asia Joe Felter, according to CNN. “That’s just not going happen. We’re going to continue to exercise our rights under international law and encourage all our partners to do the same.”
The flight was seemingly intended to send a message that the US will not change its behavior in response to Chinese aggression at sea.