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The Trump Administration's First FONOP in the South China Sea: Why Now?

A U.S. Navy destroyer challenged China’s contested claims to the South China Sea in the first freedom of navigation operation of the Trump administration.

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands Wednesday, U.S. officials told CNN. “We operate in the Asia-Pacific region on a daily basis, including in the South China Sea,” Pentagon Spokesperson Capt. Jeff Davis explained to reporters, “We operate in accordance with international law. We fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows

“We firmly opposed to the U.S. behavior of showing force and boosting regional militarization,” Defense Ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang said Thursday.

China has militarized all seven of its outposts in the Spratlys, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative reported in December. “China appears to have built significant point-defense capabilities, in the form of large anti-aircraft guns and probable close-in weapons systems, at each of its outposts in the Spratly Islands,” the research group reported.

“We did not know that they had systems this big and this advanced there,” AMTI director Greg Poling told Reuters at the time.

“If somebody is flexing their muscles on your doorstep, can’t you at least get a slingshot?” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang asked, referencing U.S. freedom of navigation operations. “The necessary military installations are mainly for self-defense and are fair and legal.”

Other Chinese officials declared that the deployment of military equipment does not constitute militarization.

The Obama administration, despite pressure from defense advisers, was hesitant to conduct FONOPs for fear of agitating China and destabilizing U.S.-China bilateral relations. It was not until late 2015 that the U.S. challenged China’s claims to the South China Sea. The Obama administration conducted a total of four FONOPs.

There were concerns that President Donald Trump might give China a pass on its expansionist activities in the South China Sea as he seeks support from Beijing on the North Korea issue. The Navy and U.S. Pacific Command submitted requests to conduct FONOPs, but the requests were denied.

Other observers simply suspected that the Trump administration was holding off on potentially provocative actions until it had a solid policy position.

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