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 Obama administration’s messaging about the Lassen’s passage could have been much clearer.

The Lassen’s passage was a limited operation meant to put pressure on China’s maritime claims—not a massive display of force designed to convince Beijing to return dredged sand to the floor of the South China Sea. As China continues to build up its artificial islands and to make spurious claims to waters and airspace around them, operations like the Lassens will be crucial to the United States’ policy in the South China Sea, where freedom of navigation is a vital national interest. But defending that interest requires clear messaging, so as it prepares for future FONOPS, the United States should work to shape expectations about the signals they will send, reminding the U.S. public and foreign leaders alike that FONOPS are regular operations with targeted, legal aims.


The Freedom of Navigation program has existed since 1979, and the U.S. military holds dozens of FONOPS each year, many of them in Asia. Washington generally does not announce FONOPS in

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