For the first time since President Trump took office, the U.S. Navy has conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea, provoking a predictable protest from Beijing. Reuters:
A U.S. Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built up by China in the South China Sea, U.S. officials said on Wednesday, the first such challenge to Beijing in the strategic waterway since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the USS Dewey traveled close to the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, among a string of islets, reefs and shoals over which China has territorial disputes with its neighbors.
China said its warships had warned the U.S. ship and it lodged “stern representations” with the United States. China said it remained resolutely opposed to so-called freedom of navigation operations.
This patrol has been a long time coming. Along with others, we have been wondering whether the Trump administration had so far declined to approve FONOPs in a gambit to solicit China’s cooperation on North Korea. If that logic indeed held sway early on, it seems that the administration has now changed its tune, rightfully recognizing that going easy on China in one dispute won’t guarantee its cooperation on another.
The exercise also sends an important signal in its own right that the U.S. refuses to recognize China’s claims, and that it will not remain passive as Beijing seeks to expand its maritime reach. That message comes none too soon, as China has lately been working out bilateral deals with its rival claimants while the U.S. has appeared missing in action. Let’s hope this is not a one-off but the start of a more active and engaged phase of the Trump administration’s South China Sea policy.