In a long overdue decision, the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command (PACCOM) has set a schedule for naval patrols by U.S. warships in the disputed South China Sea. After years of ignoring the aggressive posture China has taken in the region, the American Navy will now be a more visible presence in the region enforcing the longstanding rules of international maritime order.
Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea through which more than $4 billion in trade passes each year. China’s territorial claims collided with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Each nation has their own claim to the sea, which is thought to hold vast oil and gas deposits. To strengthen its position of ownership, China has built artificial islands and established runways and ports. Air defense systems and Chinese military aircraft have also been reported operating from the islands, further complicating matters.
These naval missions, called Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOP, are designed to remind China that the South China Sea is in fact not exclusively Chinese territory. During President Obama’s eight years in office, four FONOPs were conducted in the South China Sea. Since President Trump took office, the Navy has undertaken three FONOPs in the region, the last by the USS John S. McCain shortly before its tragic collision off Singapore in August. In an earlier FONOP in early July, USS Stethem sailed within 12 miles of Triton Island, and the Chinese responded by sending warships and aircraft to interrogate the American warship.
The argument against these type of missions is that they are simply a provocation and will only damage American-Chinese relations, especially at a time when China’s influence is desperately needed to restrain North Korea. The new plan put forth by PACCOM will allow for these FONOPS to occur two or three times each month, and in the future, American military aircraft will also be executing these missions. The hope is that rather than being seen as confronting China, the missions will become routine and accepted over time.
For three years, the Obama administration did not allow one FONOP of the South China Sea, and during that period from 2012 to 2015, China made huge advances in solidifying its claims on sovereignty of the South China Sea. Only after a court ruling at The Hague that struck down China’s claims did Obama conduct a FONOP.
The increased FONOPs have been a long time coming. There was a time when the U.S. Navy did not need to secure permission from any nation to sail in international waters. Unfortunately, the risk-adverse policies that were practiced for many years have only emboldened China within the South China Sea. Just last month China applied pressure to a Vietnamese gas-drilling project that had started months earlier off Vietnam’s southern coast. Fearing the repercussions of an angry China, Vietnam yielded to China’s demands and terminated the project.
China has been able to bully and coerce its neighbors in the South China Sea for too long as Washington stood by. The subtle pressure of regular American warships sailing those waters and the reinvigorated engagement with nations like Vietnam will demonstrate that America is determined finally to make sure that the South China Sea is not lost to the Chinese.
Gary Wetzel is an experienced military aviation photographer and writer. He is the author of two books on A-10 combat operations in Afghanistan and a U.S. Navy veteran, having served aboard fast-attack submarines as a sonar technician.
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