Will America Challenge China's Sweeping Sovereignty Claims?

Will America Challenge China's Sweeping Sovereignty Claims?

Experts are second-guessing the dangers associated with freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

As the authors state, “routine naval operations perform a far broader set of political and strategic functions . . . [that] must be clear if their purposes are to be achieved.”

Ominously, Beijing and others could well conclude that for fear of provoking China, the U.S. Navy has put the twelve nautical miles areas around China’s claimed territories in the Spratly Islands off limits to either a formal FONOP or routine Navy freedom of navigation operations. That would be “a clear message, clearly received” but not a good one for the cause of full freedom of navigation.

In conclusion the U.S. Navy should be allowed to conduct both formal FONOPs and normal freedom of navigation activities unfettered by an epistemological fear of FONOPs, which sees them as either accomplishing too little or purporting to do too much. Under the authors’ approach, FONOPs are not considered to be a substitute for normal freedom of navigation activities; yet, freedom of navigation activities are not supposed to look too much like FONOPs. Such criticism puts the Navy in a no-win situation. The FONOPS tail should not wag the freedom of navigation dog. The USS Dewey operation should be the model throughout the South China Sea.

Joseph Bosco is a national-security consultant. He served as the China country director in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He retired in 2010.

Image: The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) and the oiler USNS Big Horn (T-AO 198) break away from a formation with ships from Carrier Strike Group 5 and Expeditionary Strike Group 7 following a photo exercise to signify the completion of Valiant Shield 2016.​ Flickr / COMSEVENTHFLT