Southeast Asia — According to a statement released by U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), for the first time ever, all three of the Air Force’s “strategic power projection bombers” — the B-52, the B-1B, and the B-2 — flew in a single formation on Wednesday near the heavily disputed waters of the South China Sea.
After deploying from Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, the bombers “flew a formation pass,” then dispersed and“simultaneously conducted operations in the South China Sea and Northeast Asia,” according to the statement.
“This mission demonstrated the U.S. commitment to support global security and our ability to launch a credible strategic defense force,” said Brig. Gen. Douglas Cox.
Emphasized in the statement is how the exercise gave USPACOM the chance to work and train with “partner nations” in the region and that, as “USPACOM’s area of responsibility covers 52 percent of the globe,” such drills are effective at “assuring our allies while deterring potential adversaries.”
The announcement, and the exercise itself, comes at a time of high tension in the region.
Last week, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) deployed three nuclear-capable B-2 bombers — one of which flew in Wednesday’s historic formation — to Andersen Air Force Base in purported response to North Korea’s repeated test firings of ballistic missiles. North Korea, perhaps not surprisingly, perceived the move as a sign of imminent aggression on the part of the United States.
North Korea, in a statement cited by South Korean news agency Yonhap, responded by warning, “The right to make a preemptive nuclear strike is not the monopoly of the U.S.” and that the country was ready to “deal a merciless and annihilating blow to the enemy if they make even the slightest provocation.”
Meanwhile, pressure is building between China and Japan.
Since the beginning of August, Japan has been accusing China of violating its sovereign space by sending hundreds of fishing boats — accompanied by armed government vessels — across its maritime boundary lines and into Japanese waters. These claims were substantiated when the Japanese Coast Guard released video of the violations on Tuesday.
Further ratcheting up the tension is the fact that Japan has begun development of land-to-sea missiles in the name of protecting its space. China, of course — who doesn’t acknowledge the boundary line and claims territorial rights to those waters — took this news as proof that Japan was “eyeing a shift to an offensive posture,” according to a recent article in China’s state-run Global Times.
And all of this takes place in the context of the larger, ever more potentially destructive collision in the region — fierce posturing between superpowers China and the United States.
The U.S. — which, incidentally, has long been an ally of Japan — claims its forces stationed in Southeast Asia are there at the request of partner nations, such as Guam and the Philippines. It was the Philippines, in fact, which brought a suit against China at the U.N. Arbitration Court over the South China Sea dispute. That suit was settled on June 11 in favor of the Philippines, though China has all along stated it has no intention of abiding by that ruling.
But China, feeling the heat of the U.S. presence in the region, has been putting on a show of late, demonstrating both its militaristic and technological capabilities — such as unveiling the world’s largest amphibious aircraft and releasing footage of rockets that can destroy targets miles above the Earth.
And with the Air Force’s strategic bomber exercise on Tuesday suggesting that the U.S. seems be of a similarly braggadocious mind, it doesn’t appear either side will be backing down any time soon.
On July 14, in fact, a former Navy admiral told a congressional hearing the U.S. would be wise to prepare for naval warfare in the South China Sea.
Indeed, it appears all that’s required now is the spark, and the waters of the East and South China Seas could ignite. And given the geopolitical ties of both China and the United States to other regions of the globe, the potential is there for other nations to feel compelled to get in on the action.
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