ASCF Report | 7.1.18
By Alan W. Dowd

“We’re going to continue to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) as allowed by international law,” Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said in response to questions about recent U.S. FONOPs near the Paracel Island chain, where China is constructing airstrips, harbors and SAM sites. The Chinese bases reflect Beijing’s intent to annex the South and East China Seas piecemeal. The American FONOPs are part of a wider effort to prevent that—and uphold some semblance of international order. Thankfully, America’s closest allies are joining this effort.


Before discussing the emerging FONOP coalition, we need to spend a moment on the behavior that is triggering FONOPs in the South China Sea.

China lays claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea based on a map drawn by Chinese cartographers. To bolster those claims, China is turning coral reefs and atolls into armed island outposts—and attempting to turn the South and East China Seas into “Lake Beijing,” in the words of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The islands “are clearly military in nature,” according to Adm. Harry Harris, former commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. One features a 10,000-foot airstrip—long enough for bombers and fighter-interceptors. All told, Beijing now has 27 military bases sprinkled across the tiny islands and atolls of the South China Sea, many of them on or encroaching upon waters and territories claimed by other nations. Some of these “Made in China” islands are flatly illegal. All of them are provocative.

No doubt reflecting the views of his government, Chinese Vice Admiral Yuan Yubai says, “The South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China.” By that childish logic, the Gulf of Mexico belongs to Mexico, the Indian Ocean to India, the Persian Gulf to Iran.

In response to Beijing’s attempted landgrab, the U.S. has been conducting FONOPs in the area since 2015. However, U.S. FONOPs are neither new nor limited to the South China Sea.

Of the hundreds of instances of U.S. military intervention since 1789, dozens are related to piracy, freedom of the seas, freedom of transit, and maritime encroachment and poaching. Moreover, President Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points called for “absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas.” FDR and Churchill’s Atlantic Charter envisioned a postwar peace allowing “all men to traverse the high seas and oceans without hindrance.” FDR called “freedom of the seas” an “American policy.”

Since 1979, the U.S. military has challenged excessive airspace and coastal claims under the Freedom of Navigation Program. Thus, when Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi declared the Gulf of Sidra as his own, the Carter administration ordered U.S. warplanes and warships into the area from time to time, although it suspended the exercises during the Iranian hostage crisis.

President Ronald Reagan revived the program and ordered the U.S. Sixth Fleet to resume exercises throughout the Mediterranean. Qaddafi sent warplanes into international airspace to test the Americans. “We weren’t going to allow him to declare squatter’s rights over a huge area of the Mediterranean in defiance of international law,” Reagan said. Authorized, in Reagan’s words, to pursue attacking Libyan warplanes “all the way into the hangar,” U.S. Naval airpower responded with deadly force and made it clear to Qaddafi that there would be no payoff for disregarding international norms—only costs.

Likewise, when Iran began attacking commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf, Reagan authorized Kuwaiti ships reflagged with the Stars and Stripes and had U.S. warships escort Kuwaiti vessels. After an Iranian mine ripped through a U.S. ship in international waters, Reagan ordered a series of military strikes that crippled Iran’s navy—and ensured that the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz would remain open to international maritime activity.

In FY2017, U.S. forces made “operational challenges against excessive maritime claims” vis-à-vis 22 countries. China was the most flagrant scofflaw, with violations of freedom of navigation/freedom of the seas around the Paracel Islands and above the South China Sea and East China Sea, illegal claims of jurisdiction over airspace above the South China Sea and East China Sea, illegal restriction of foreign aircraft movement above the East China Sea, and illegal claims of territorial waters around land features located in international waters.

These operations are not solely the domain of the Navy. In June, for instance, Air Force B-52 bombers rumbled over China’s manmade fortifications in the Spratly Islands.


Ninety percent of global trade travels by sea, and $5.3 trillion of global trade passes through the South China Sea annually (including $1.2 trillion in goods headed to or from the United States). This doesn’t happen on accident or by magic. The burden of keeping the sea lanes open—discouraging encroachment and illegal claims, deterring bad actors, fighting piracy, clearing vital waterways and chokepoints—largely falls on the U.S. military, though some allies are offering a helping hand.

Japan conducts FONOPs with the U.S. and has vowed to expand its naval activity in international waters claimed by China. “I strongly support the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operations, which go a long way to upholding the rules-based international maritime order,” Japanese Defense Minister Tomomi Inada says.

In addition, as the Diplomat reports, Abe is building partnerships with nations adjacent to the South and East China Seas—supplying the Philippines with patrol vessels and reconnaissance planes, launching a joint maritime dialogue with Indonesia and building new ports for Indonesia, and upgrading the Vietnamese Coast Guard.

Australia conducts air patrols over the South China Sea to ensure freedom of the seas and skies, as well as routine naval movements through international waters. This past spring, three Australian warships transited waters claimed by China enroute to Vietnam, sparking a verbal exchangebetween Chinese and Australian naval commanders. “Australia asserts and practices its right to freedom of navigation throughout the world’s oceans, including the South China Sea,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in response.

Even though it is woefully undersized, the Canadian navy has participated in FONOPs alongside U.S., Australian and Japanese warships.

The Indian navy is now taking part in exercises in the South China Sea. Calling the passageways of the South China Sea “the main arteries” of international trade, Prime Minister Narendra Modi says India “supports freedom of navigation based on international law.”

Material support for FONOPs in the South China Sea is also coming from outside the region. French defense officials have vowed to carry out “regular and visible” FONOPs in the South China Sea and, echoing the U.S., have stated that France is committed to “sailing its ships and flying its planes wherever international law will allow, and wherever operational needs request that we do so.”

In May and June, the French Maritime Task Group, joined by British warships, made a point of sailing through waters claimed by China in the Spratly Island chain. “By exercising our freedom of navigation, we also place ourselves in the position of a persistent objector to the creation of any claim to de facto sovereignty on the islands,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly said, adding, “I believe we should broaden this effort even further.”

Toward that end, French air and naval assets are transiting the region throughout this summer, making stops in Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and India.

British Defense Minister Gavin Williamson reports that three British warships will be deployed to the region throughout the balance of the year “to make it clear that nations need to play by the rules.” Asked about U.S. FONOPs in the region, Williamson adds, “We absolutely support the U.S. approach on this, we very much support what the U.S. has been doing…We’ve got to ensure that any form of malign intent is countered.”

To-Do list

To encourage continued allied cooperation—and discourage further Chinese provocation—the U.S. needs to do some legwork.

First, Washington should consider forming a naval taskforce under the auspices of the Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) to put muscle behind ASEAN’s declaration supporting “freedom of navigation in, and over-flight above, the South China Sea.”

CMF is a partnership of 32 seafaring nations “united in their desire to protect the free flow of commerce, improve maritime security and to deter illicit activity.” Although CMF taskforces currently focus on security, counterterrorism and counter-piracy in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean and off the Horn of Africa, it’s not difficult to envision U.S., Indian, Japanese, Australian, British and EU naval assets participating in a CMF taskforce dedicated to freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas.

In a similar vein, Eric Sayers of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has proposedstanding up of a joint taskforce in the Pacific “modeled off the Standing Naval Forces Atlantic construct that NATO operated in the 1970s and 1980s.” That squadron included between six and 10 surface ships from Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States.

Second, Washington should respond favorably to South Korea’s invitation to forward-deploy “strategic assets,” such as an aircraft carrier, in South Korea. There is currently only one carrier based outside the U.S. (the USS George Washington, which is forward-deployed in Japan). Although South Korea does not border the South China Sea, it’s a lot closer to this increasingly hot spot than San Diego, Bremerton, Newport News or Norfolk (cities which serve as homeports to the balance of America’s carrier fleet).

Third and finally, none of this is feasible without more assets ensuring freedom of the seas and conducting freedom of navigation operations.

At the height of the Reagan rebuild, the Navy boasted 594 ships. Today’s fleet numbers just 279 ships. Although today’s fleet may be more ambidextrous than yesterday’s, FONOPs, by definition, require assets to be on location routinely and regularly.

Without more American (and allied) ships, we can count on more Chinese mischief and outright aggression.