US bombers fly over disputed South China Sea

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Two US B-52 bombers flew over disputed parts of the South China Sea, officials said Thursday, as the United States continued to test Chinese territorial claims in the important sea route.

Many regional countries, including the Philippines and Vietnam, deny China’s claim to most of the South China Sea, but Beijing has rapidly reclaimed land and expanded the islets to build airports, runways and other constructions.

The Chinese military contacted the US bombers, telling them to “get away from our islands,” Washington-based news site The Hill quoted an unnamed US official as saying. The bombers did not comply, he added.

The B-52 bombers flew within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made islands near the Spratly Islands, the US official was quoted as saying.

Pentagon spokesman Bill Urban confirmed the flights, but told reporters that the bombers did not go within 12 nautical miles (22 kilometres) of any islands. This is the limit of a country’s sovereign territory in the sea, although it does not apply to submerged reefs or artificial installations built on them.

The bombers, which flew their mission on November 8-9, received two verbal warnings from Chinese ground controllers, media reports quoted Urban as saying.

In recent weeks, the US has sailed two warships, including one carrying US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, through the South China Sea in what the Pentagon describes as “freedom of navigation” operations.

China has described such sail-bys in the sea – a major shipping route also thought to be rich in mineral resources – as “illegal.”

The US commander in the Pacific, Admiral Harry Harris, said during a visit to Beijing earlier this month that “our military will continue to fly, sail, and operate whenever and wherever international law allows. The South China Sea is not – and will not be – an exception.”

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