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An Innocent Mistake

How a Fumbled Freedom of Navigation Operation Set Back U.S. Interests in the South China Sea

U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House, September 2015. REUTERS / KEVIN LAMARQUE

Before year’s end, the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is reportedly planning to conduct a second freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) around one of China’s new artificial islands in the South China Sea. Designed to show that the United States will not recognize any Chinese attempt to establish expansive maritime rights around its man-made outposts, the operation will mark the second mission in as many months, after an October 27 FONOP around China’s Subi Reef.

A bipartisan group of regional analysts and defense experts roundly criticized the Obama administration for its handling of that patrol, including its muddled messaging and potentially self-defeating execution. In fact, the Subi Reef FONOP may represent the first case in the 36-year history of U.S. freedom of navigation patrols in which an operation strengthened an illegal maritime claim rather than challenged it. 

The Subi Reef FONOP may represent the first

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