For the first time since President Donald Trump took office, a U.S. warship has sailed near a Chinese-controlled island in the disputed South China Sea, signaling an attempt to project a more assertive American stance against Beijing just before a major regional defense summit.
The mission, a passage by the guided missile destroyer USS Dewey on Wednesday within twelve nautical miles of Mischief Reef, in the Spratly Island chain, was long anticipated and delayed. The last such operation took place in October, and U.S. commanders who had already chafed under Barack Obama’s tight leash had hoped to get a freer hand and to carry out more patrols under Trump.
Instead, the new administration has declined several requests from the military to carry out naval patrols in the disputed waterway. Eager to secure China’s help in pressuring North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, the White House has moved cautiously and chosen not to confront Beijing over the South China Sea, officials and congressional aides told Foreign Policy.
But with defense ministers and senior military officers from across Asia due to meet in Singapore next month, including U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, the administration needed to show it was willing to back up its words with some action and demonstrate that it would uphold the principle of freedom of navigation, experts said.
“This was a good, albeit overdue, move by the Trump Administration,” said Ely Ratner, formerly deputy national security adviser to Joe Biden and now at the Council on Foreign Relations.
It was the first time a U.S. warship had sailed within the twelve-mile limit of any Chinese-held feature — a way to show that Washington doesn’t buy Beijing’s claims that rocks generate a territorial sea, and so push back against China’s expansionist claims. “This was the big one folks were waiting for,” he said.
And while those so-called freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPS, by themselves don’t amount to a U.S. strategy to deal with the South China Sea, he said, the first step is to make sure that China can’t unilaterally fence off bits of international waters. “FONOPs are an essential part of that,” Ratner said.
During the campaign and early days of the administration, Trump and his deputies staked out a tough line on China. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested in his confirmation hearings that U.S. forces would actually try to expel China from disputed waters and islets it now claims.
But North Korea and its rapidly-expanding missile and nuclear weapons program have grabbed the attention of the Trump administration, pushing the disputes over the Chinese land grab in the South China Sea — and Beijing’s open militarization of many islets and atolls — to the back burner. Trump has toned down his rhetoric on trade disputes and other spats with China specifically to secure Beijing’s cooperation in defusing the North Korea crisis.
“The president and his advisers have calculated that if we are to get China’s help on North Korea, better to take the foot off the gas on more contentious issues,” said Mira Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
Even though as a candidate Trump portrayed former president Barack Obama as a weak president in his dealings with China and other adversaries, his administration’s cautious diplomacy bears some resemblance to Obama’s policies, as the previous White House concluded that more could be gained from Beijing by avoiding a full-blown confrontation over the South China Sea or other disputes.
Much to the consternation of U.S. allies in Asia, the Trump White House has yet to fill senior positions at the State Department and the Pentagon handling Asia policy, and has said little about the South China Sea issue publicly. The uncertainty over the administration’s policy on China has alarmed America’s partners and weakened the resolve of some governments in Southeast Asia, who fear Washington will no longer back them up if they try to take on Beijing in the South China Sea.
At a meeting last month in Manila of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, government ministers from the region backed off of references to “land reclamation and militarization” after lobbying from China.
The Pentagon sought to downplay the significance of the operation, which it described as routine. Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, described the passage at an event in Washington Thursday as “not confrontational,” and said that the so-called freedom of navigation operations by U.S. ships receive exaggerated scrutiny for the supposed diplomatic messages they convey.
“They sure get a lot of attention when they happen,” he said, but the operations are routinely conducted all over the world without the fanfare associated with the South China Sea missions.
The operations sure get a lot of attention in China.
The Dewey’s patrol “undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests and is highly likely to cause untoward incidents in the waters and airspace,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Thursday.
Citing China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over those islets and surrounding waters, he added: “We strongly urge the U.S. side to correct its wrongdoing and stop any provocative actions detrimental to China’s sovereignty and security interests so as to avoid any further damage to China-US cooperation and regional peace and stability.”
And such operations are also closely watched in Washington, rightly or wrongly, as a barometer of the administration’s willingness to push back against China. Amid growing concern in Congress that the Trump administration is making strategic concessions to China in hopes of persuading Beijing to shift its stance on North Korea, several senators from both sides of the aisle wrote a letter earlier this month urging the administration to show resolve in the South China Sea and conduct more frequent naval patrols in the waterway.
The first real test of the effect of Wednesday’s naval mission will come in early June at the Shangri-La dialogue, a large annual gathering in Singapore that serves as a venue for high-level talks on crucial matters of Asian security.
Many maritime experts view the focus on freedom of navigation operations, and how they are publicly presented, as misplaced.
“In my view, the publicity around the FONOPs is problematic. Many observers now view it as an indicator of U.S. resolve, which it is not,” said M. Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese maritime issues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Such missions are merely meant to uphold traditional rights to navigation in international waters for all countries, he said. What’s more, they can give Beijing an excuse to ramp up its own provocative behavior, feeling as if its claims of sovereignty are being challenged.
“They were never intended to do more, such as deterring China’s broader ambitions in places like the South China Sea.”
Ultimately, and despite the belated U.S. mission near Mischief Reef, Washington has few tools at its disposal to convince China to retreat from its years-long acquisition and garrisoning of a spate of tiny reefs and atolls in the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest waterways. Some experts and lawmakers have urged imposing economic sanctions on Chinese companies taking part in the vast island-building project, but the Trump administration has shown no sign it is ready to consider such a move.
Since it began dredging sand from the seafloor to vastly expand the size of those pinpricks of coral in 2014, China has built airfields, deep harbors and air defense systems on many features and deployed advanced fighter jets, despite promises to stop militarizing the area.
The bid to extend its reach in the waterway is part of China’s much broader effort — backed up with an arsenal of missiles — to push out its defensive perimeter from the Chinese coast and keep potential rivals at arm’s length in the event of a conflict.
“The United States does not have great options in the South China Sea,” Fravel said. “China will not vacate the features it occupies and the United States will not forcibly remove them. “
China’s project has moved at a brisk pace, with reports of new military installations appearing every few weeks. Earlier this month, a state-run Chinese paper said that Beijing had installed 155mm rocket launchers on Fiery Cross reef in the Spratlys, purportedly to deter combat divers from Vietnam, which has been at loggerheads with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“They basically succeeded in their construction projects, and are now well on their way to having floating bases out in the Spratly islands, and there’s been really very little pushback and they’ve had to pay very little cost for doing so,” said Rapp-Hooper.
She added: “It is, unfortunately, now game over.”
Photo credit: JAY DIRECTO/AFP/Getty Images