The Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group is steaming its way into the South China Sea area as part of a longstanding, visible U.S. Navy effort to demonstrate that the United States and its allies will continue to operate and sail freely wherever international law allows.
This key message has for many years formed the basis for why the Pentagon and U.S. Navy conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations, also known as FONOPs, designed in large measure to remind China that the United States and its allies do not support China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Through the use of phony island-building, called “land reclamation” years ago, the Chinese have sought to fortify or reinforce territorial claims in the Spratly Island Chain in the South China Sea, areas long claimed by a range of different Southeast Asian countries to include Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, and others.
China’s assertive claims continue, and the country has continued to militarize the region, building runways and basing air and land war assets near disputed territories. Thus, FONOPs continue. The U.N. Law of the Sea Convention, which the United States has not signed but still abides by, stipulates that twelve miles off the coast of a given sovereign territory amounts to an extension of that country’s land. Therefore, FONOPs have over the years sailed destroyers and other surface assets within a twelve-mile boundary of areas claimed by China, as part of a specific effort to demonstrate that the United States and its allies in the region do not consider China’s claims to be legitimate or lawful.
“The South China Sea is pivotal to the free flow of commerce that fuels the economies of those nations committed to international law and rules based order,” said Rear Adm. Will Pennington, commander, Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, said in a Navy report. “It is both a privilege and a pleasure to work alongside our allies, partners, and joint service teammates to provide full spectrum support to key maritime commons and ensure all nations continue to benefit from a free and open Indo-Pacific region.”
The USS Reagan brings a Carrier Air Wing as well as a Destroyer Squadron and guided-missile cruiser to the region as part of a demonstration of power, presence, and freedom.
“Upholding freedom of the seas in the South China Sea is vitally important where nearly a third of global maritime trade, roughly 3.5 trillion dollars, a third of global crude oil, and half of global liquefied natural gas passes through the sea each year,” the Navy report says.
Ongoing FONOPs of course signify that South China Sea tensions are not disappearing, but also reinforce the importance of a U.S. Naval presence in the Pacific. Of course, this is in part due to a need to sustain security for international waterways, commerce, and other maritime activities, there is also a clear strategic and tactical reason the United States has in recent years stepped up its ongoing presence in the Pacific. Simply put, the Navy needs to be ready for war, in the event that China attempts a rapid, surprise attack upon Taiwan, Japan or other vital areas in the region.
The U.S. Navy most likely wants to ensure that it is close enough to respond quickly should China suddenly launch a surprise attack, considering that China could seek to annex Taiwan more quickly than the United States could respond. Should a Carrier Strike Group be in the Pacific, supported by fixed-wing assets from Guam, Japan or Taiwan, a U.S. counterattack could be both swift and decisive. Range is key to this kind of a prospect, because even if long-range surveillance assets were able to detect an approaching Chinese invasion, a Chinese strategy could potentially be based on a hope that it can succeed before a credible defense could be put together. That possibility, however, appears unlikely, as the U.S. Navy does sustain a regular and consistent presence in Asia and could quickly dispatch fighter jets, long-range missiles and of course submarine torpedo attacks rather quickly.
Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.