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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.
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 on FONOPs as an appropriate response. In October 2015, former President Barack Obama authorized the first U.S. FONOP in the South China Sea since early 2012. (The Obama administration later promised to conduct two such operations per quarter, but it ordered only four FONOPs between late 2015 and the end of 2016, in part because it worried that the operations would impede progress on other issues in the U.S.–Chinese relationship.)
FONOPs do not seek to compel China to abandon its artificial islands, nor can they stop Beijing from building military installations on the territories it occupies. But the operations send an important legal message—that the South China Sea is an international waterway over which China is not entitled to make spurious maritime claims—and failing to carry them out suggests to Beijing that it can expand its reach with impunity. Worse, it could lead China’s neighbors to accept Beijing’s military outposts and expansive claims as legitimate. (Last year, an international tribunal ruled that those claims had no basis in international law).
Trump said little about the South China Sea during his campaign for the presidency. But he did take a consistently tough line against China, and as president-elect, he described Beijing’s land-reclamation projects in the region as “brazen” and “terrible.” Since conservative critics of the Obama administration’s China policy often argued that its approach to FONOPs was insufficient, it seemed possible that Trump would embrace the operations after taking office, persistently asserting the rights of U.S. forces to fly or sail wherever international law permits.
The reality has been quite different. The United States has not conducted a FONOP in the South China Sea since Trump became president in January. In fact, according to The New York Times, defense officials have rejected several requests to conduct FONOPs submitted by the U.S. military’s Pacific Command.
Nor has the Trump administration said much about the United States’ commitment to the freedom of the seas, apart from a few brief references made by Vice President Mike Pence during a trip to the region. The official readouts of Trump’s first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April made no mention of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea or China’s role in them; indeed, there were few signs that the issue played much of a role in the summit at all.
Exactly why the South China Sea has fallen off the administration’s agenda is not clear. But it is possible that U.S. officials have decided to lift the pressure on China’s maritime outposts because they believe that doing so could help secure Beijing’s help in managing North Korea. There are other signs that suggest that the administration may be trying to gain China’s favor. When Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Beijing in March, for example, the White House authorized him to describe the bilateral relationship in language favored by Chinese officials—a puzzling accommodation in light of the importance that Beijing attaches to such rhetoric. The next month, Trump called on South Korea to pay for a missile defense system whose deployment China has opposed. The Trump administration has also released no details about when it will announce arms sales to Taiwan, and Trump has indicated that he will seek Beijing’s permission before speaking to Taiwan’s president again. (Trump spoke on the phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December, in a break from longstanding U.S. policy that angered China.)
If this is the administration’s logic, it is deeply flawed. China is indeed capable of pressuring North Korea, since Beijing supports much of that country’s economy. But China has long prioritized the stability of the Korean Peninsula over its denuclearization, and those preferences will not change. More likely is that Beijing will pressure North Korea just enough to demonstrate that it is pitching in, avoiding the kinds of dramatic steps that would push Pyongyang toward denuclearization at the risk of the regime’s collapse. China will not ignore its interests in the Korean Peninsula simply because Washington gives up its own interests in the South China Sea.
Standing down from FONOPs in the South China Sea would have immediate consequences. Although the operations alone cannot stop China’s land-reclamation projects, failing to conduct them gives Beijing a green light to proceed apace. In the absence of international pressure, China will continue to transform its artificial islands into military bases. (Indeed, on May 16, a state-run media outlet reported that China had further armed one of its largest bases in the disputed Spratly Islands.) If Beijing believes that Trump is unlikely to take a stand, it has reason to militarize its outposts quickly, lest the U.S. president change his mind.
In the medium term, focusing on managing North Korea at the expense of the United States’ interests in the South China Sea could destabilize the U.S.–Chinese relationship. Such a course would suggest a dangerously narrow definition of U.S. priorities, encouraging China to more assertively press its position on other regional issues, such as its relationship with Taiwan or the territorial disputes in the East China Sea.
But it is in the long term that U.S. acquiescence in the South China Sea would be the most damaging. If the United States ceases to defend freedom of navigation, others will not make up for its absence. U.S. allies such Australia and Japan are committed to international law, but they do not have their own freedom of navigation programs, and they cannot maintain a regular military presence in the South China Sea. Similarly, if the Trump administration does not seek to rally Southeast Asian countries to support the waterway’s openness, those countries will have little reason to stand up to China on their own. States in the region, including U.S. partners, will quickly presume that Washington is pulling back from Asia and will increasingly view China as the region’s most dependable power, despite its misbehavior at sea. The result would be a tilt in Asia’s balance of power toward Beijing.
If the United States waits months to get tough in the South China Sea, it will do so from a weaker legal, military, and diplomatic position than it holds today. Making matters worse, a sudden shift after a long delay could cause whiplash in Beijing, sending the bilateral relationship into a crisis.
That is why the United States must step up now. Just as international law does not enforce itself, access to the oceans cannot be taken for granted—and it should certainly not be traded away.
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