2017/30, 26 May 2017
On Wednesday 24 May the US Navy conducted its first “Freedom of Navigation Operation” (FONOP) in the South China Sea since President Trump took office in January. Although the FONOP has attracted much media attention, it is too early to tell whether it heralds a major ramping up of US pressure on Beijing in the South China Sea or, as is more likely, is merely a continuation of existing policy.
The FONOP took place at Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation (i.e. below the waterline at high tide) that was first occupied by China in 1994 and which was terraformed into a large artificial island in 2014-16 and now hosts a long runway and other military infrastructure.
Because China’s reclamation work did not change the legal status of the feature, Mischief is not entitled to a 12 nautical miles (nm) territorial sea. Moreover, Mischief lies only 130 nm from the Philippine island of Palawan, and is located within that county’s 200 nm exclusive economic zone (EEZ). In its award of 12 July 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague ruled that China’s island-building at Mischief had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights and caused massive environmental damage.
The FONOP was conducted by the guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey. The warship passed within 12 nm of the artificial island, and during the transit carried out a “man overboard” rescue drill. As such military manoeuvres are prohibited under international law during ‘innocent passage” through a territorial sea, the FONOP was meant to demonstrate “high seas freedom” and thus was a repudiation that Mischief Reef is entitled to a territorial sea.
In an effort to downplay the FONOP as a routine activity, the Pentagon merely stated that the US military operates in “accordance with international law” and that “We fly, sail, and operate where the law allows”. Unsurprisingly, China protested the transit as “trespassing” near islands over which it had “indisputable sovereignty”, and urged the US to cease such activities. China’s defence ministry claimed that two frigates had “expelled” the Dewey from the area. The state-run Global Times accused the US of undermining the current situation in the South China Sea which has recently seen a cooling of tensions, largely due to improved relations between the Philippines and China.
The Trump administration came to office accusing President Obama of failing to deter Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and thus emboldening China, including its terraforming of seven features in the Spratly Islands. Yet despite some initial hawkish comments from senior officials, the new administration adopted a very cautious position over the South China Sea. Indeed, press reports suggested that the White House repeatedly turned down requests from the Honolulu-based Pacific Command to carry out FONOPS in the South China Sea. Some observers suggested that Trump was eager to enlist the support of China to manage the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programme, and didn’t want to aggravate Beijing in the South China Sea.
So why now? There are three possible explanations. First, that Trump was trying to relieve pressure from a group of senior US senators who want America to underscore the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Second, the Trump administration is sending a signal to Beijing that it isn’t willing to make concessions in the South China Sea in return for its cooperation over North Korea. Third, the FONOP might be intended to reassure Southeast Asian countries of America’s commitment to regional security at a time when the new administration has been paying little attention to Southeast Asia and the balance of influence appears to be moving in China’s favour.
Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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