2018/33, 27 March 2018
On 23 March 2018, the US Navy destroyer USS Mustin conducted a “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) in the South China Sea by sailing within 12 nautical miles of Chinese-controlled Mischief Reef in the contested Spratly Islands. Over the past few years, China has constructed extensive military facilities on Mischief Reef.
This was the sixth publicized US FONOP in the South China Sea since President Trump took office in January 2017. All three FONOPs in the Spratlys have taken place at Mischief Reef (two others have occurred in the Paracel Islands and another at Scarborough Shoal which is not considered part of the Spratlys). The shortest duration between FONOPs was 39 days and the longest 99 days; the average was 60.6 days or approximately two months.
The Mustin FONOP followed a similar pattern to previous missions. The US Defense Department refused to confirm or deny that it had taken place, stating only that the US regularly conducts FONOPs around the world. China’s defence ministry said the mission was “illegal and provocative” and that it had “seriously harmed” China’s sovereignty and security. It added that such missions would only strengthen China’s determination to bolster its military capabilities in the South China Sea. Two Chinese warships were dispatched to warn off the Mustin though no confrontation was reported.
The Trump administration has been highly critical of Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea and has stepped up the frequency of FONOPs to challenge what Washington considers to be China’s excessive maritime claims. This latest FONOP comes at a time of growing tensions between America and China. The Trump administration has threatened to impose tariffs on US$60 billion worth of Chinese imports and signed legislation that permits US officials to travel to Taiwan and meet with their Taiwanese counterparts.
So far, the US is the only country that has been willing to conduct FONOPs in and around Chinese-occupied features. While the French frigate Vendémiaire recently conducted a presence mission in the South China Sea, and the UK frigate HMS Sutherland is expected to sail through the sea this month, both missions are designed to assert general high seas freedoms rather than directly challenge China’s excessive maritime claims, unless Beijing’s nine-dash line claim is considered to be one. Although Paris did not reveal details of the Vendémiaire mission, it does not appear to have sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of China’s artificial islands; HMS Sutherland is unlikely to do so either. And while there has been talk of Australia and Japan conducting US-style FONOPs in the South China Sea, neither country has undertaken one to date.
Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
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