Two American bombers flew over the hotly contested South China Sea Thursday evening, in a move that undermined China’s claim to the territory just as President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping were set to meet at the G-20 summit in Hamburg.
The flyover with the B-1B Lancers, occurring at the tail end of a joint military training exercise between the U.S. and Japan, risked angering China at a time when the Trump administration is trying to pressure Beijing to help tackle the North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile threat.
Instead, the U.S. Air Force released a statement saying the mission “demonstrates how the U.S. will continue to exercise the rights of freedom of navigation anywhere international law allows,” and that the flyover was “consistent with long-standing and well-known U.S. freedom of navigation policies that are applied to military operations around the world.”
The exercise also intended to show the “solidarity between Japan and the U.S. to defend against provocative and destabilizing actions in the Pacific theater,” the statement said.
Beijing has long laid claim over the waterway, disputing other countries like Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam, and building up military infrastructure to solidify its presence.
“China resolutely opposes individual countries using the banner of freedom of navigation and overflight to flaunt military force and harm China’s sovereignty and security,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang, according to Chinese media outlets.
Despite wanting Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea, the U.S. has provoked China several times in the last few months. A U.S. Navy warship sailed into disputed territory last week, claiming it was an “innocent right of passage,” while the Chinese government called it a “serious political and military provocation.”
The Trump administration also approved the U.S.’ first-ever weapons deal to Taiwan, worth $1.4 billion, which China’s American ambassador Cui Tiankai said “damaged the basis and mutual trust between the two countries.”