Quoting Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn, the US media reported that US B-52 bombers have conducted transit operations in the South China Sea and East China Sea earlier this week. The heavy bombers also took part in a combined operation in the East China Sea. It is widely believed the move would enrage Beijing and exacerbate tensions between the two countries.
The Western media reports did not mention whether the bombers flew near Chinese islands.
There are Chinese islands and reefs, Chinese territorial waters, jurisdictional waters and overlapping waters claimed by relevant countries in the vast South China Sea.
There is no problem with US ships and aircraft passing through international waters. But if they sail into or fly over China's territorial waters, they will receive warnings from, and be expelled by, the Chinese side.
The South China Sea is a major gateway for the world's merchant shipping and witnesses frequent transits of foreign vessels and warships. China has repeatedly said it has no objections to legally conducted freedom of navigation operations in the region.
This time the Pentagon deliberately made public the flights of the B-52 bombers in the South China Sea. Its purpose was to incur speculation that the US was challenging China's South China Sea policy. Although it is unknown whether the US bombers flew into the 12 nautical miles of China's islands and reefs, international public opinion has deemed the US as provoking China. So it was. Because if that was a normal flight, why the need for a public announcement?
China's island-building in the South China Sea aroused strong US dissatisfaction.
Therefore Washington has ratcheted up military activities in the waters with the purpose of pressuring Beijing to draw back. However, no matter how it provokes China, the US has little influence. China has maintained its overall strategic initiative in the South China Sea.
China has more cards to play than the US in the waters. If the US military activities continue to increase in the region and threaten the security of China's islands and reefs, China could deploy military combat equipment to the islands and reefs.
From a broader picture, more US military provocations against China will stimulate China to input more resources into building strategic military capacity, including advanced nuclear capacity, which is sure to upset the US.
Against the backdrop of a tense US-China military relationship in recent years and the ongoing trade frictions, any US provocation against China is easily over-interpreted. The US had better exercise restraint in case it cannot handle the intensified tension.