Make No Mistake

The United States Should Get Its Message Straight in the South China Sea

The USS Lassen in the Pacific Ocean, November 2009. US Navy / CPO John Hageman / Handout via Reuters

On October 27, the United States conducted a long-awaited freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea. During the operation, the USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke–class guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef—a formerly submerged atoll that China has built into an artificial island to cement its claim to the area.

In the months before the FONOP, the prospective exercise received a great deal of public attention. And in the weeks since, U.S. analysts have puzzled over what message the Lassen’s passage actually sent, since many of the details remain unclear or undisclosed. “I don’t like in general the idea of commenting on our military operations but I can say [that] what you read in the newspapers is accurate,” said Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, when pressed by Congress on the particulars of the FONOP. 

There is no question that the

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