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"US Navy FONOP at Scarborough Shoal Symptom of Growing Sino-US Competition" by Ian Storey

2018/5, 22 January 2018

On Wednesday 17 January, the US Navy conducted its first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) of 2018 in the South China Sea—and its fifth under President Trump—when the destroyer USS Hopper sailed within 12 nautical miles of Scarborough Shoal, a small atoll 120 miles west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.

Although Scarborough Shoal is not part of the contested Spratlys archipelago, sovereignty of the reef is claimed by the Philippines and China and has become a part of the wider dispute over maritime territories and jurisdictional rights in the South China Sea. In 2012, China seized de facto control of Scarborough Shoal after a tense two-month standoff between the two countries’ coast guards.

The Pentagon did not comment on the Scarborough Shoal mission directly other than to say it conducts “regular and routine” FONOPs around the world. China criticized the actions of the USS Hopper as violating the country’s sovereignty, endangering maritime safety and undermining regional peace and stability.  It also claimed to have “driven” the US warship away.

The latest FONOP is significant for three reasons.

First, it comes after a three-month hiatus in FONOPs during which the Trump administration has been asking China to ramp up economic pressure on North Korea in an effort to end Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.  The FONOP at Scarborough Shoal—together with heightened speculation that President Trump will impose punitive trade measures against China—may be designed to signal that Washington is unhappy with China’s stance over North Korea and that Beijing needs to squeeze Pyongyang further.

Second, the Philippine government’s assertion that it did not want to get involved in the spat between Beijing and Washington over the FONOP at Scarborough Shoal highlights Manila’s efforts under President Duterte to downplay the dispute in favour of better relations with China. Under Duterte’s predecessor, Aquino, the Philippines had sought US support for its position over Scarborough Shoal.

Third, the FONOP was conducted just two days before the Pentagon released its National Defense Strategy (NDS) which labels China a “strategic competitor” that seeks to displace the US, achieve hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region and, ultimately, global preeminence. The NDS lists a series of measures designed to maintain the current world order and meet the challenge posed by China, including “ensuring common domains remain open and free” such as the South China Sea. An increase in the tempo of US FONOPs can thus be expected, possibly leading to an upturn in tensions in the South China Sea in 2018.

Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.