The flight path was a clear indication that the possibility of military conflict between the United States and China is all too real in the South China Sea, where China has built up its military presence with bases in recent years.
“This move of having the plane bypass the South China Sea is one way of showcasing that there is a genuine interest in managing the crisis and de-escalating the situation,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Flying over Chinese military bases “would have given the Chinese the opportunity to disturb the flight and given them a chance for aircraft interference,” Mr. Koh said. “The risk of such close encounters was too high.”
Officials have described ties between the United States and China as being at their lowest point since 1972, when President Richard Nixon traveled to Beijing to restart diplomatic relations between the two countries. In June, the American defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, warned China against “provocative and destabilizing activity” near Taiwan.