The Re-Pivot to Asia?
U.S. Gets More Active in the South China Sea

This morning, the Navy Times reported that the U.S. has sent a “small armada” of the John C. Stennis carrier, two destroyers, two cruisers and the 7th Fleet flagship to the South China Sea. Meanwhile, having struggled to get India to change its policy of not collaborating on naval operations with other governments, the U.S. has succeeded in convincing New Delhi to participate in multilateral exercises in the Philippine Sea—China’s front yard, practically—with Japan. Reuters:

The announcement comes a day after the United States warned China against militarisation of the South China Sea, where Beijing is locked in a territorial dispute with several countries, saying there would be consequences.

Last year, India and the United States expanded their annual naval drills in the Bay of Bengal to include Japan after a gap of eight years, in a move seen as a response to China’s growing assertiveness in the region.

Admiral Harry B. Harris, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the naval exercise will be held in the northern Philippine Sea and that Japan will take part.

Freedom of the seas was a fundamental right of all nations, he told a security conference in New Delhi, adding some thinly veiled criticism of Beijing.

Washington’s policy regarding Beijing in the South China Sea has been a bit opaque lately. According to the Pentagon, the Navy has conducted two Freedom of Navigation Operations, one last fall and another in January of this year. But international law experts say the maneuvers were actually “innocent passage” operations. Over at the Diplomat, Joseph Bosco explains that there’s an important difference:

Legally and operationally, and as commonly understood, an IP is a fundamentally different animal from a traditional FONOP. One, the IP openly concedes the coastal country’s territorial sea claim whereas the typical FONOP directly challenges it.

Two, the IP deferentially acknowledges that it is transiting through a country’s 12-mile territorial zone. The traditional FONOP defiantly asserts it is sailing on the high seas. And three, the IP proceeds expeditiously through the zone with radar deactivated, helos and drones ship-bound, without exercise or maneuvers.  The “pure” FONOP acts like a Navy ship always does at sea, proudly, multi-dimensionally, and vigorously.

We’ll be watching the next few operations, which Admiral Harris has said are coming, to see how the Navy conducts them. Yet despite these important lingering uncertainties, it looks like the U.S. is getting more assertive in the South China Sea.

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