Two B-52 bombers flew unarmed and unescorted through a no-fly zone declared by China over disputed islands in the East China Sea Monday in a direct challenge by the U.S. to Beijing’s attempts to intimidate its neighbors, defense officials said Tuesday.
The overflight came less than 48 hours after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the U.S. would not recognize China’s “Air Defense Identification Zone” over the uninhabited Senkaku Islands, claimed by Japan, China and Taiwan.
A Pentagon spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed that U.S. aircraft flying out of Guam had carried out the overflight on a previously scheduled training mission and returned to Andersen Air Base on Guam “without incident.”
The spokesman would not identify the type of aircraft but other officials said they were B-52H Stratofortresses. In August, B-52s from the 20th Bomber Squadron at Barksdale Air Force Base, La., deployed to Guam as part of the U.S. effort to re-balance forces to the Pacific.
An Air Force press release in August quoted Lt. Col. Scott Maytan, commander of the 20th Bomber Squadron, as stating that "What we do day to day with this presence mission is show our ability to fly our airplanes around the Pacific theater and support whatever contingencies we might be asked to do.”
Maytan added that "The continuous bomber presence maintains long-range strike capability in theater, so our national decision makers have assets that they can use should they ever need to."
On Friday, China declared the imposition of the Identification Zone over the Senkakus, called Diaoyu by the Chinese, and warned that all aircraft approaching the area must first file a flight plan, radio frequencies and transponder information or risk “emergency military measures.”
The Pentagon spokesman said that the U.S. aircraft did not notify the Chinese on the Senkakus overflight, nor were the U.S. aircraft contacted by the Chinese.
Over weekend, Hagel said in a statement that the Senkakus announcement by China “will not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region. “
Hagel said “We view this development as a destabilizing attempt to alter the status quo in the region. This unilateral action increases the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculations.”
In California, where President Obama was traveling Tuesday, White House officials called for a peaceful settlement of the disputes over the Senkakus and other islands in the region.
“We believe that inflammatory rhetoric and inflammatory policy pronouncements like those made by the Chinese over the weekend are counterproductive, and we believe that those differences of opinion can and should be resolved diplomatically,” said Prinicipal Deputy White House spokesman Josh Earnest.