Defending Freedom at Sea
U.S. Conducts Third FONOP in the South China Sea

The United States conducted its third freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea yesterday, sailing a warship within twelve nautical miles of the Chinese-claimed Fiery Cross Reef. The Wall Street Journal has more:

The destroyer took one pass past the island in an operation the defense official described as routine. Daniel R. Russel, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told journalists in Hanoi that the operations “are not provocations. They are good global citizenship.”

“If the world’s most powerful navy cannot sail where international law permits, then what happens to the ships, the navy, of a smaller country?’’ said Mr. Russel, who earlier met with Vietnamese officials in preparation for a visit by President Barack Obama in two weeks.

A China Foreign Ministry spokesman said authorities monitored and tracked the U.S. naval vessel and warned that it was in Chinese territorial waters.

“The U.S. is flexing military muscles in the South China Sea and sending military vessels and ships into waters and airspace near” Chinese islands, he said. “That is the real threat to peace and stability as well as freedom of overflight and navigation in the South China Sea.”

China has been making significant improvements to its artificial islands and fortified islands over the past few months, apparently unswayed by Washington’s entreaties. The last two freedom of navigation operations did not slow down Beijing noticeably—if anything, China has only become more aggressive. In April, China landed a military aircraft on Woody Island and analysis of satellite imagery has revealed more and more runways and buildings.

The Pentagon has reportedly been asking the White House to authorize a more aggressive posture. What that means in practice, however, is unclear. Recently, some have speculated that the United States will draw the line with China at the Scarborough Shoal, a strategic position in the South China Sea which Beijing says it wants to make into a fortress. A reporter visiting the Pentagon recently overheard Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford ask Admiral Harry Harris, the U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region, whether the U.S. would risk war over the Scarborough Shoal. Harris’s response was inaudible. In a profile of Admiral Harris last weekend, the NYT tried to find out what Harris said:

Asked later — war or not over the Scarborough Shoal — the admiral chuckled.

“It is good that my voice is low,” he said, popping a Coca-Cola as he sat on a couch in his expansive office. “I will say I’m a military guy. I look through the lenses darkly, and that’s what I’m paid to do.”

To defend American interests, he said, “I have to do it with the tools I have, and they are military tools, and they are great tools.”

In the battle to keep the South China Sea open for trade, freedom of navigation operations could just be the beginning.

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