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

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