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US FONOPs in the South China Sea: Intent, Effectiveness, and Necessity

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U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea are controversial. Indeed, the U.S. targeting of China’s “excessive” claims there, U.S. resumption under the administration of President Donald Trump, and China’s increasingly strident objections raise important questions: Specifically what are or should be the U.S. intent? Have they been effective? And are they necessary?

The last FONOP under the Obama administration targeting China’s claims in the South China Sea occurred on October 16, 2016. The first one under the Trump administration took place on May 24, 2017 when the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey made a non-innocent passage within 12 nautical miles of China-claimed and occupied Mischief Reef in the Spratlys. This indirectly challenged China’s sovereignty over the low tide feature. China objected; the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the U.S. destroyer had “trespassed” near islands over which China has “indisputable sovereignty.”

Some U.S. analysts saw the FONOP as a “challenge to Beijing’s moves in the South China Sea” and a sign that Washington “will not remain passive as Beijing seeks to expand its maritime reach.” U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis said it was part of U.S. strategy. But what that strategy is remains unclear. Some – like U.S. Navy War College Professors Peter Dutton and Isaac Kardon — questioned whether the Dewey mission was really even a FONOP, let alone a part of U.S. strategy — whatever that is. The official description of the operation did not explicitly state that a FONOP was conducted and according to Dutton and Kardon “the [U.S.] messaging continues to be muddled.”

In a separate but related development, Pentagon officials stated that FONOPs will no longer be acknowledged or announced when they occur but only listed in an end of year report. Most previous FONOPs were purposely well-publicized by the U.S. Departments of Defense and State as demonstrations of U.S. interpretations of international law.

On July 2, the USS Stethem sailed within 12 nm of Triton Island in the Paracels, long claimed and occupied by China. This FONOP was essentially a repeat of the USS Curtis........

© The Diplomat