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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

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