Air Force general: Bomber flight in South China Sea ‘routine’

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The commander of the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific pushed back Wednesday on reports that a B-52 bomber flew within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea, saying the conversation with Chinese air traffic control is routine.

“That conversation happens not just in the South China Sea, but happens in other places where people want to know, ‘Hey, who are you?’” Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, told reporters at a roundtable hosted by the Defense Writers Group. “It’s not the first time that that’s happened.”

{mosads}Though Robinson said any flight through international airspace could be considered “freedom of navigation,” she added the flights that made headlines last week were not within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands and that the Air Force has yet to fly directly over the islands.

Earlier this month, two B-52 bombers took off from Guam on what Robinson described as routine training flights. They flew around the Second Thomas Shoal and Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, she said.

When one of the flights got within range of Chinese air traffic control, a controller issued the warning: “You have violated my reef. Change your course to avoid misjudgment,” Robinson said, reading from a transcript of the conversation.

A couple of minutes later, Robinson said, Chinese air traffic control issued a second warning: “You’re violating the security of my reef. Change course to avoid misjudgment.”

At that point, according to Robinson, the U.S. pilot responded, “I’m a United States military aircraft conducting lawful military activities in international airspace, and exercising these rights is guaranteed by international law. In exercising these rights as guaranteed by international law, I am operating with due regard to the right and duties of all states.” 

There was no more communication after that, Robinson said, and the U.S. aircraft continued on its way.

Navigation near the Spratly archipelago has become increasingly tense as China builds artificial islands on the reefs to bolster its claims to the disputed waters. U.S. officials have said they won’t take a position on maritime disputes, but want to ensure the passage remains open for the international trade that regularly uses it.

Last month, the Navy conducted what’s known as a Freedom of Navigation Operation by sending a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of one of the islands. The move infuriated the Chinese.

In regard to whether the Air Force will also operate within 12 nautical miles, Robinson said she’s provided a range of options to her superiors, but did not elaborate on what those options were. 

“We will continue to exercise our right to fly in international waters, just like we do all around the world,” she said. “Once guidance is given we’ll execute as directed.”

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