Adrift in the South China Sea

The High Cost of Stopping Freedom of Navigation Operations

An view of Thitu Island, one of the disputed Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea, July 2011. Rolex Dela Pena / Pool / REUTERS

On May 10, seven Republican and Democratic senators sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump urging his administration to resume the United States’ freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, in the South China Sea. The timing of the bipartisan letter was striking. Senior lawmakers chose a moment when Washington was consumed by a number of political crises, including the ouster of former FBI Director James Comey, to press their case about naval operations thousands of miles away.   

They had good reason to do so. The Trump administration has not yet carried out any FONOPs in the South China Sea, giving up one of the essential tools the United States can use to protest China’s expansive territorial claims there. By failing to send U.S. ships and planes past Chinese outposts in the waterway, Washington has neglected to remind Beijing that it does not regard China’s position there as legal or legitimate.

It is possible that U.S. officials have scaled back their focus on the South China Sea as part of a broader gambit to gain China’s favor, perhaps hoping to secure Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea and concessions on trade. Such a transaction, however, would undermine the United States’ position in Asia. And even if that is not the Trump administration’s reasoning, pausing the FONOPs will still have serious costs.

Chinese-built structures in the Spratly Islands, April 2017.
Chinese-built structures in the Spratly Islands, April 2017.  Erik De Castro / REUTERS


Although the United States’ commitment to the freedom of the seas stretches back to the country’s early history, only in 1979 did Washington develop its freedom of navigation program, which seeks to challenge maritime and airspace claims that do not conform with international law. Every year, the U.S. military conducts dozens of FONOPs, most of them without fanfare, in order to reject various states’ efforts to restrict access to the world’s oceans. 

In 2015, as Washington and its partners in Asia looked for ways to push back against China’s land-reclamation projects in the South China Sea, U.S. officials settled

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