The Trump administration has accepted a higher pace of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.
Earlier this week, the United States carried out the fourth freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea so far this year, after resuming the operations after a seven-month break in May. A U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Chafee, challenged excessive Chinese maritime claims in the Paracel group in the South China Sea, according to a Reuters report.
According to Reuters, which cited U.S. officials, USS Chafee “carried out normal maneuvering operations” to challenge excessive maritime claims. The claims themselves were not explicitly clarified, but would likely involve China’s illegal prior notification requirements for lawful innocent passage operations. Moreover, the operation, like previous Paracel FONOPs, may have protested China’s illegal straight baselines around its island possessions there.
In response to the operation, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army reportedly deployed two fighters, a helicopter, and surface ships to escort USS Chafee out of what Beijing claims as its territorial waters. “We demand the U.S. side earnestly take steps to correct its mistakes,” the Chinese Ministry of Defense noted, adding that China would improve its area and anti-ship defenses in the region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, speaking at a press conference the day after the operation, noted that China would “continue to take resolute measures to protect Chinese sovereign territory and maritime interests. China urges the U.S. to conscientiously respect China’s sovereign territory and security interests, conscientiously respect the efforts regional countries have made to protect peace and stability in the South China Sea, and stop these wrong actions.”
The FONOP is the fourth in just five months and demonstrates that the Trump administration is accepting a higher frequency for these operations. After the Obama administration initiated South China Sea operations in October 2015, beginning with challenges to Chinese and other South China Sea claimant state possessions in the Spratly group, it only carried out three additional operations in 2016.
Critics of the Obama administration’s approach to the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea suggested that the relative infrequency and perception that the operations were subject of the overall ebbs and flows of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship undermined their stated utility as legal signaling tools. Even with stepped up FONOPs this year, the Trump administration hasn’t changed the fundamentals of U.S. South China Sea policy, which continues to remain agnostic about sovereignty claims and focuses exclusively on freedom of navigation, overflight, and the preservation of international law and order in the region.
With the exception of USS Dewey‘s May 2017 FONOP around Mischief Reef — notable for being the first FONOP this year — successive Trump administration FONOPs have attracted comparatively less attention in the press. Proponents of these operations in the United States have argued that they should not be seen as noteworthy events, but more as a fact of life in the South China Sea — a reminder of the U.S. Navy’s forward presence in the area and its commitment to freedom of navigation.
A corollary of the increased pace of operations this year is that a slowdown in U.S. FONOPs could appear to be motivated by broader diplomatic concerns in the bilateral U.S.-China relationship. In any case, the next operation will likely occur after Trump travels to Asia, where he will visit China among other states.