Previously, the Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) was regarded as a military operation and detailed information about FONOP was always kept secret. They took place very often but the public was not an eyewitness.
America’s report of the three recent FONOP in the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea) is completely different from its previous practice. Moreover, regarding the tension of disputes in the East Sea, such information may bring about unexpected result because of the two following reasons:
Firstly, reporting about these activities can be understood as challenging China, prompting this country to respond. In the eyes of Beijing, FONOP is considered a direct challenge to their territorial claims and indirect challenges to China as a whole.
Chinese military conducts exercises at sea. Photo: China News.
If Chinese leaders do not react, they may be assessed by their people as weak or making concessions to America. Although the response of China has been mild and mostly symbolic, the statements by Beijing have contributed to consolidate their views and escalate disputes.
Secondly, the coverage of the recent three FONOP of the US created an excuse for China to emphasize their interpretations of the UNCLOS as Professor Julian G.Ku described. The traditional FONOP, often organized secretly, will not cause any consequences but does not reducie the significance of this operation.
Therefore, the US should continue to conduct FONOP in the East Sea regularly, without having to widely report about them.
Malcolm Cook, an expert of the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, warned that tensions could soon escalate in the East Sea. If the intelligence information is correct, China will build works on the Scarborough Shoal, a feature located 123 nautical miles from the main islands of the Philippines and 250 nautical miles from the features in disputes in Truong Sa (Spratly Islands) and Hoang Sa (Paracel islands), and 530 nautical miles from China’s Hainan island. This would be a serious escalation of China, which can “drown” the desire of the new government in Manila of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte to reduce bilateral tensions, and make the countries involved in the region increase pressure on the US in order to prevent China.
But Cook confirmed that the biggest shortcomings of the USFONOP is not the fault of this country. The biggest problem is the US wanted to conduct FONOP alone and endure predictable reactions from the Chinese side. Countries such as Japan and Australia are clearly in a bigger threat in the East Sea but they are not willing to carry out FONOP. Meanwhile, the Southeast Asian countries that supported the US operation could only show their support discreetly, especially in the forums with the participation of China.
Cook said this fact reduced the weight of the message that FONOP sent to China. The lack of support from other countries, in word or deed, is damaging the effectiveness of FONOP in showing that the coastal countries of Southeast Asia and Japan agree with the US to denounce the claims of China in the East Sea and China’s construction activities on artificial islands as an act that destabilizes the region.
This also creates an opportunity for China to argue that FONOP is the effort of the US to contain China.
The future FONOP of the US in the disputed waters in the East Sea may not face harmless travel restrictions, especially related to the islands that China illegally renovated recently. And the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) can rule that some or all of these artificial islands are built on low-tide elevations, thus they are not allowed to enjoy territorial rights under the provisions of UNCLOS.
However, the US position regarding the dispute in the East Sea, and the views of the coastal states in Southeast Asia, Japan and Australia, will bring more benefits if the US does not conduct FONOP alone, or at least is supported by countries concerned on a more regular basis.