The US military has stepped up to regularly challenge Beijing’s dominance in the South China Sea and has achieved one of its main missions — controlling the narrative — with the help of B-52 nuclear-capable bombers.
For years, Beijing has laid unilateral and illegal claims to about 90% of the South China Sea, a rich shipping lane where trillions of dollars in annual trade pass and untold billions in oil resources lie.
Through environmentally damaging dredging, China built up island fortresses around the waterway.
Chinese President Xi Jinping stood next to former President Barack Obama in the White House’s Rose Garden and promised not to militarize the islands. But China has flown its own nuclear bombers, fighter jets, and other military aviation to the artificial land features that now hold radar and missile sites.
The US’s main way of challenging China’s claims to these waters have been freedom of navigation operations, or sailing a US Navy destroyer close to the islands to show that its military doesn’t respect Beijing’s claims, as they violate international law.
“US military aircraft, you have violated our China sovereignty and infringed on our security and our rights. You need to leave immediately and keep far out,” a recent Chinese warning blared to the US, according to The New York Times.
A B-52H Stratofortress.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Brittany Y. Auld)
China built not only islands, but its own narrative insisting on its ownership of the South China Sea. Any US military flights in the South China Sea used to make prominent news because Beijing would heavily object using its substantial media clout.
In August 2018, the US flew B-52s over the South China Sea four times.
“Is the US trying to exert more pressure on China’s trade by sending a B-52 bombers to the South China Sea?” China’s nationalist, state-affiliated tabloid Global Times asked at the time.
But on Sept. 24, 2018, the US flew four B-52s clear across the South China Sea with hardly a peep from US or Chinese media.
Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, a Pentagon spokesman, told Business Insider the B-52 flights were a matter of course.
“The movement of these aircraft require them to fly multiple routes, to include in the vicinity of the South China Sea, part of regularly scheduled operations designed to enhance our interoperability with our partners and allies in the region. The United States military will continue to fly sail and operate wherever international law allows at a times and places of our choosing,” Eastburn said in an email.
By making US military transit across the South China Sea a non-news item, something that happens regularly and without incident, the US has started to turn the tide against China’s unilateral claims.
By declaring the South China Sea as its own and trying to pressure the US into backing down in the face of missiles and fighter jets, Beijing may have opened itself up to being challenged by a superior force.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.