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

An Innocent Mistake

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

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 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 Obama administration can’t afford to repeat the same mistakes during its next operation. The drama unfolding in the South China Sea today will help shape the fate of maritime law in the twenty-first century, so the United States must ensure that both the messaging and execution of its activities there advance its broader strategic goals.

HIGH SEAS, HIGH STAKES

In 2013, China quietly began dredging sand from the ocean floor and dumping it on rocks and low-tide elevations, eventually creating seven new artificial islands in the disputed Spratly archipelago. Now totaling some 3,000 combined acres, China’s man-made outposts, which are scattered amid nearly 600 rocks, shoals, and islets also claimed or occupied by Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, have alarmed states across the Indo-Pacific.

For one, the outposts are likely to strengthen China’s claim to lucrative territory, resources, and fisheries in the Spratlys. Second, the islands can serve as power-projection platforms for the Chinese

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