mead berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn bayles
Better Late Than Never
Trump Launches First FONOP in South China Sea

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.

More, please.

Features Icon
show comments
  • KremlinKryptonite

    A welcome development, albeit troubling that it took at least this long for Trump to see the obvious – that General Secretary Xi is no friend of his and that such an assertion (even an appeal to vanity) is just plain silly.
    Although, it’s not nearly enough. Mischief Reef is in the EEZ of the Philippines, and was forcibly taken by China in 1995… Some FONOPs do little to impose cost for now creating 3,200 acres of new “land” claimed as “territory” outfitted with radar, missiles, and runways.

    • Unelected Leader

      No, no, no! You misunderstand! North Korea’s nukes are peaceful nukes. Those are peaceful threats towards everybody. It’s going to be a peaceful “sea of fire [in Seoul]” These islands are peaceful fake islands and stolen ones. Everything is peaceful man, calm down OK?

    • f1b0nacc1

      I sympathize with your position, but the sad truth is that the horse has bolted, and locking that particular barn door isn’t going to do very much. The Chinese are simply not going to leave these bits and bobs of land (and their attendent EZs), and will see the minor nuisance of the FONOPS as just that, a minor nuisance. Sooner or later we will trade away our position for some transitory “concession”, which the Chinese will pocket even as they violate the terms of their deal. This is their way, and unless we are willing to take equally brutal and unpleasant steps (a policy I would support, I should point out) then pretending otherwise isn’t serving anyone’s interest including our own.

      Worse still, without solid, united support from the other states in the region, we aren’t likely to make much progress. The Philippines aren’t going to stand with us, and I suspect that they are hardly the only ones with spines of pure jello. If we aren’t going to get the support of those in the region who have at least as much interest in all of this as we do, we had best reconsider just how serious our efforts should be.

      Make it clear to the Chinese that the response will be directed at their pressure points. Sell weapons wholesale to the Taiwanese, withdraw objections to nuclear weapons of all states in the region, that sort of thing. Privately at first, of course, and give the Chinese a chance to withdraw without loss of face. But once that fails, let them cope with the consequences.

      • KremlinKryptonite

        We are mostly on the same page. Its certainly up to allies how far they are willing to be pushed and subordinated. When I landed in Japan a decade ago, I was watching America’s influence erode at a very fast clip. Hu Jintao was a much smoother operator, and autocrat. Didn’t poke anyone in the eye unnecessarily, and talked all day long about peaceful this and peaceful that.

        Xi Jinping and the factional infighting he has stirred up has really been a godsend. I’ll admit to being shocked at how fast the region started looking for America again, like a kid who realizes they can’t see mom anymore in the mall. The ramped up aggression in the SCS coupled with Xi’s clear problems getting his own house in order have really spooked an awful lot of people (and caused their reasonable assumptions that Xi has little or no control over the PLAN as it pertains to the SCS anyway).

  • Kevin

    If going easy on China in the SCS resulted in effective pressure on North Korea it would probably be a worthwhile trade off. Yes giving ground on freedom if the seas is painful and means we wouldn’t be standing for a valued principal here, but getting denuclearization in North Korea is also very valuable and certainly worth being a bit flexible on other issues to get. Certainly worth exploring as delaying FONOPs a few months has little long term cost (even if one concedes get g the PRC to put effective pressure on the DPRK is not actually likely to work out). If Trump is going to get the PRC to play ball on the DPRK he’s got to show he can add or remove carrots and sticks in response to China’s actions.

  • ljgude

    I think the Trump card here is pointing out to China that we don’t want to pursue a policy of maximum containment but if they don’t solve the NORK problem then they will be facing all sorts of missile defences and a nuclear Japan, South Korea and yes, Taiwan. Personally I don’t care if China annexes North Korea, they won it fair and square in the 50s, and it is really screwing things up for everyone.

  • Martin Hutchison

    UM, the 12 mile limit is for territorial boundaries. It sounds like a smoke job, because it acknowledged the islands as Chinese territory. If we had cruised 2.9 miles from it (within the previous 3 mile limit), that would have shown that we do not agree that those islands are part of China. No one is happier than the Chinese about this, the protestations are cover.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service