Confronting China in the South China Sea

Multilateralism Is Freedom of Navigation's Next Step

Philippine Military Academy cadets wade ashore during a training exercise in Ternate, south of Manila, May 2013. Romeo Ranoco / REUTERS

On January 29, the USS Curtis Wilbur, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, a Chinese-held islet in the South China Sea that is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam. Like the United States’ preceding freedom of navigation operation (FONOP), which took place in October, the Wilbur operation was meant to protest Chinese maritime claims that the United States and a number of Southeast Asian states consider excessive. But unlike the earlier mission, which was carried out by the guided-missile destroyer USS Lassen and which experts widely regarded as bungled, the most recent FONOP sent a clear legal message to Beijing and to the public. It also revealed important signs of support for U.S. freedom of navigation operations on the part of regional states.

By all appearances, in other words, Washington is finding its footing in the South China Sea. The United States can go further to sharpen its messaging and win regional support, though, by publicizing more information on its freedom of navigation activities and by building a multilateral coalition that supports them.


Island-building is not forbidden by international law, but as China has constructed small military bases on its outposts in the South China Sea, it has certainly crossed legal lines. In particular, it has claimed sovereign water and airspace around its artificial islands to which it is not entitled under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

To respond to such claims, U.S. policymakers have zeroed in on the freedom of navigation program, which is overseen by the State and Defense Departments and whose purpose is to contest claims to water and airspace that are inconsistent with UNCLOS. The long-standing program conducts dozens of so-called navigational assertions each year, many of them in Asia. There hadn’t been much activity in the Spratlys, though, until October 27, 2015, when the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef—a contested artificial feature that was submerged at high tide until China

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