By all appearances, the U.S. Navy is poised to begin Freedom of Navigation exercises in the South China Sea. Rumors first emerged in May 2015 that the Pentagon was contemplating military operations around China’s new artificial islands among the Spratly Islands. Through such exercises, the United States would aim to demonstrate that it does not recognize spurious Chinese claims to water and airspace around the islands. So far, the Department of Defense has declined to make moves near China’s so-called Great Wall of Sand. The administration has, however, consistently stated that there are U.S. national interests in freedom of navigation and overflight in this vital waterway, where $5 trillion of global trade passes each year. With the presidential summit between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping now complete, operations seem imminent.
At the very least, the public debate about South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) has already begun. Already, two myths about their role in U.S. foreign policy have emerged. The first is that they are a strict alternative to diplomacy with China. According to a Politico article, this narrative holds that there are some “military leaders who want to exercise their freedom of navigation” while diplomats are demurring in the interest of continued diplomacy with China. The second misconception is that they would challenge China’s claims to territory in the Spratly Islands. Even the best reporting on these exercises suggests, as did a recent Wall Street Journal article, that the purpose of FONOPS is to “directly contest Chinese territorial claims.”
Combined, these two misconceptions suggest that U.S. FONOPS would be a serious escalation by Washington in the South China Sea. As the history of the Freedom of Navigation Program and its relationship to international law make clear, however, such operations would complement U.S. diplomacy and, although they would contest China’s claims to water and airspace under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), they