A United States Navy destroyer, the USS John S. McCain, carried out last week what the US calls a “Freedom of Navigation Operation” (FNO) in the South China Sea. It passed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island group.
The Chinese armed forces immediately sent naval ships to the area and warned the US destroyer to leave – a warning which it ignored as the voyage through the area was precisely undertaken as part of the US Freedom of Navigation Program. US State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said the operation is conducted on a daily basis around the world to demonstrate that the US will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.
Mischief Reef – Panganiban Reef to us – is an atoll surrounding a large lagoon 250 kilometers west of Palawan. When China started building structures on stilts on the atoll in 1994, the Philippine government protested, but China rejected the protest, saying the structures were just sheds for fishermen. The Philippines raised the issue to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague and in 2016, the court ruled that Mischief Reef is part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines. China never accepted the ruling. Today, it has a military base on Mischief Reef believed to have anti-aircraft and missile defense systems, with a large harbor and a 2,600-meter runway.
The US said its FNO program is not specifically directed against any one country. It is being undertaken in international waters around the world in areas claimed by several nations, not just those with which it has tense relations like China, Iran, and Venezuela. It has also challenged the sea claims of 19 other nations, including India, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, as well as ASEAN nations Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
President Duterte has declared that the Philippines stands by the Arbitral Court ruling which upheld most of the Philippines’ claims against China, but now is not the time to challenge China with all its military might. The other ASEAN nations have come to share this thinking. Pending final resolution of the issue in some future agreement, it will be left to the US to do the challenging with its Freedom of Navigation program.