The US Air Force said on Friday that US warplanes have flown over the disputed South China Sea, a move aimed at asserting freedom of navigation rights in the hotly-contested area. The flights come as both US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend the G20 meeting in Hamburg.
The US Pacific Air Forces Public Affairs office said that a US B1-B bomber and two F-15 fighters with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force departed Guam's Andersen Air Force Base and flew over the neighbouring East China Sea late on Thursday.
The statement read that this is "the first time US Pacific Command-directed B-1B Lancers have conducted combined training with JASDF fighters at night". It added: When the bilateral operations concluded, "the B-1Bs proceeded to the South China Sea before returning to Andersen Air Force Base".
It was not immediately clear when or if a second US B1-B bomber joined for the South China Sea leg of the operation. The US statement read the mission "demonstrates how the US will continue to exercise the rights of freedom of navigation anywhere international law allows."
"Flying and training at night with our allies in a safe, effective manner is an important capability shared between the US and Japan," Major Ryan Simpson, Pacific Air Forces chief of bomber operations told AFP.
The statement further added that the joint military flight demonstrates US-Japanese "solidarity ... to defend against provocative and destabilizing actions in the Pacific theater".
In response, China's foreign ministry said that it opposes the use of freedom of overflight as an excuse to harm its security.
Beijing claims nearly whole of the disputed South China Sea. However, parts of the waterway are also claimed by Taiwan and Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. China has rapidly built reefs in the area into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
Apart from South China Sea, China also lays claim to tiny islands in the East China Sea between Japan and the Korean peninsula, and between Japan and Taiwan.