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China deploys only aircraft carrier after US sends B-52s over disputed islands

A group of islands in the East China Sea is claimed by China and Japan.
A group of islands in the East China Sea is claimed by China and Japan.Chris Meyers / Reuters file

China has deployed its one and only aircraft carrier after two unarmed American B-52 bombers flew over a disputed island chain and through what China insists is restricted airspace.

U.S. defense officials told NBC News that the Chinese had not engaged in a provocative act or made any demands against American or Japanese military in the region. Japan and China both claim the island chain, in the East China Sea.

Still, American officials voiced increasing concern about the situation. The secretaries of state and defense both spoke with their Japanese counterparts, and a senior administration official said that Vice President Joe Biden would “seek clarity” on the matter during a scheduled trip to China next week.

The U.S. officials said that the Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, had no aircraft on board and had never flown an aircraft. It was described by one U.S. naval official as “a museum” that does not pose a threat.

The carrier is considered decades behind U.S. technology — China bought it from Ukraine in 1998 and fixed it up — but represents Chinese naval ambition. The deployment was the first cross-sea voyage for the Liaoning, Chinese media reported.

The Liaoning was deployed in the opposite direction from the islands, into the South China Sea.

China said that the mission was routine, but the Philippines said that it would raise tension in the region nonetheless. China claims almost all the South China Sea and rejects claims to parts of it by Malaysia, the Philippines and other countries.

The American bombers flew over the islands on Monday night on what was described by a U.S. official as a training mission. The flight came just days after China announced it was expanding its air defense identification zone to include the disputed islands.

The expansion included an expectation by the Chinese government that all aircraft declare a flight plan and frequency and provide other information before entering. China did not challenge or protest the American bomber flights, however.

The senior administration official said that the visit will allow Biden to talk about China’s broader “emerging pattern of behavior.” A second official said that the U.S. believes China needs to help lower the tension, and that the move “causes uncertainty” in an uncertain region and raises the risk of “miscalculation and accidents.”

The official said that Biden will discuss how China operates in international space and “how they deal with areas of disagreement with their neighbors.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called his Japanese counterpart on Wednesday morning to talk about the security situation. U.S. officials said that Hagel called China’s expansion of the air zone a potentially destabilizing act.

Secretary of State John Kerry has also spoken to his Japanese counterpart, the State Department said.

U.S. military officials said that they had no intention to change plans for a joint military exercise with Japan nearby.

Meanwhile, State Department officials said on Wednesday that they had advised U.S. airlines to take necessary steps to operate safely over the East China Sea as tensions increase.

Reuters contributed to this report.