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Foreign Policy

Behind the US’ Freedom of Navigation Operations

Dec 18, 2018
  • Chen Zinan

    Assistant Researcher, Maritime Strategy Studies, CICIR
  • Zhang Zhaoxi

    Intern at Maritime Strategy Studies of China Institute of Contemporary International Relations

On 26 November, the USS Chancellorsville guided missile destroyer entered the waters of the Xisha Islands in the name of “freedom of navigation programs” (FONOPs). According to the US Pacific fleet spokesman, the foray was meant to challenge the excessive maritime claim by China, and uphold the right of entry to sea routes governed by international law, without reference to the details of the operation. Nevertheless, the operation speaks volumes to new developments in US military activities around the South China Sea, and the strategic rationale behind it.

There are two new features of US military operations in the area. First, higher frequency of military operations. Since the launch of the FONOPs in October 2015 under the Obama administration, the US navy has conducted 13 operations, including 3 in 2016, 4 in 2017, and 5 in 2018 so far. To be more specific, in November this year alone, operations were held in close succession around the South China Sea. On the 14th, two aircraft carrier strike groups comprising 10 vessels conducted military drills in the Philippine Sea. On the 20th, two B52 bombers cruised along the South China Sea islands. On the 26th, US cruisers conducted FONOPs around the Xisha Islands. On the 28th, two military vessels sailed across the Taiwan Straits, in an apparent muscle flexing against China.  

Second, US maritime operations have become more provocative. In the wake of the so-called South China Sea arbitration, the Trump administration upgraded the FONOPs from innocuous passage to mobile navigation and drills within 12 nautical miles from the straight baseline of the Nansha Islands. While in the past such operations were conducted by a single destroyer, fleet of cruisers and destroyers were deployed in May this year, and a single cruiser was later used in operations, marking a departure from past patterns. This may be an intended response to the close encounter between the two sides in September in waters near the Gaven Reef, in a bid to underlie the hard line position of the US on freedom of navigation.

This string of developments reflects some strategic calculation by the US. First, fuel tensions surrounding the South China Sea. Dynamics among South China Sea parties are taking a turn for the better, with maritime cooperation yielding progress. In August, China and ASEAN countries reached agreement on the framework of the Code of Conduct of the Parties in the South China Sea (COC), and in November, China made the proposal to conclude the COC consultations within 3 years, which was echoed by various parties concerned. In October, China and ASEAN jointly held maritime exercises. In November, China and the Philippines signed a memorandum of understanding on oil and gas development. The US ratchets up “freedom of navigations” against this backdrop to drive a wedge between countries in the South China Sea, and keep tensions simmering.

Taiwan also enters into the equation. The US navy sent two vessels across the Taiwan Straits soon after the operations in the South China Sea. On October 31, the US Chief of Naval Operations, John Richardson asserted that the US would continue operations to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Straits, strengthening the US military presence to counter China’s maritime power in the region. On the other hand, Taiwanese authorities have been claiming to uphold the “right of navigation and overflight”, and even went so far as to say that US military vessels could berth at the Taiping Island for humanitarian aid purposes. The US also intends to shore up the DPP in the wake of their local election losses by catering to DPP’s stance on the South China Sea.

The issue is also being used as a bargaining chip. Chinese and US leaders met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in December to seek a solution to the ongoing trade disputes between them. Intensive military operations prior to the summit were meant to strengthen the US’ hand in trade negotiations with China. 

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