WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon said on Friday it was looking at Chinese complaints that a B-52 bomber recently flew near a Chinese artificial island in the South China Sea, a sensitive issue because the two powers disagree over Beijing's territorial claims in the region.
Navy Commander Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman, said the United States regularly conducts B-52 training missions throughout the region but there was no plan for the B-52 to fly within 12 nautical miles of any artificial island.
"This was not a Freedom of Navigation operation," said Urban, referring to regular U.S. Navy missions conducted to challenge what the United States believes are excessive territorial claims made by other countries.
"The Chinese have raised concerns with us about the flight path of a recent training mission," Urban said. "We are looking into the matter."
China's defense ministry said in a statement on its website on Saturday that its forces had closely monitored the plane and warned the aircraft to leave.
Referring to the maneuver as "provocation", the ministry said it urged the United States "to immediately adopt measures to put an end to such kind of dangerous actions, in order not to impact the two countries' military relations."
The U.S. guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef in late October to deliberately challenge China's claims of territorial waters there. The decision drew an angry rebuke from China, which called it "extremely irresponsible."
Subi Reef is an artificial island built up by China over the past year. Before Chinese dredging turned them into islands, Subi was submerged at high tide. Under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, 12-nautical mile limits cannot be set around man-made islands built on previously submerged reefs.
The incident involving the B-52 bomber took place last week near the Cuarteron Reef in the Spratly Islands, disputed territory claimed by China and several of its neighbors, the Wall Street Journal said.
China complained the plane flew within 2 nautical miles of the reef, a U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity. The official said the United States believed the plane was somewhat farther away but had mistakenly come within 12 nautical miles.
Reporting by David Alexander. Additional reporting by Dominique Patton in BEIJING; Editing by Mohammad Zargham, Ken Wills and Ed Davies