Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: As Nuclear Tensions Rise, Trump’s Third FONOP

Jimmy Chalk, Sarah Grant
Friday, August 11, 2017, 9:49 AM

USS John McCain Loiters at Mischief Reef, while China Readies its First Indigenous Carrier

(Photo: US Navy)

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USS John McCain Loiters at Mischief Reef, while China Readies its First Indigenous Carrier

(Photo: US Navy)

This was a fairly quiet week in the post-ASEAN Regional Forum world of East Asian maritime disputes, as the North Korea-U.S. nuclear dispute and accompanying escalatory language captivated the region’s attention.

With all eyes on Korea, though, the United States carried out another freedom of navigation operation (FONOP). The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer USS John McCain passed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef, the site of an artificial island constructed and controlled by China. This is the third FONOP since the beginning of the Trump administration. As noted by The Diplomat, Mischief Reef is a particularly consequential FONOP site, given the operation’s significant ramifications under international law.

Chinese officials were reportedly “very displeased” at the FONOP, telling The Guardian, “The US destroyer’s actions have violated Chinese and international laws, as well as severely harmed China’s sovereignty and security.” U.S. officials called the operation “routine” and said it lasted approximately six hours, a duration that suggests the operation was more legally significant than mere “innocent passage.”

In Other News…

United States

An MV-22 Osprey aircraft crashed off the coast of Australia on Saturday, resulting in the deaths of three U.S. Marines. The aircraft was assigned to the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit embarked aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard and was participating in the joint U.S.-Australian exercise Talisman Sabre. The crash reinvigorates concerns in Japan over the safety of the aircraft and its continued operation in and around Okinawa, in particular.


China’s first indigenously-built aircraft carrier, the Type 001A Shandong, is expected to enter mooring trials next month, ahead of schedule. Mooring tests and at-sea trials are the final steps preceding commissioning and entry into active service, originally planned for 2020 but now anticipated as soon as 2018.


Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) released its annual white paper on Tuesday, outlining the MoD’s major focus areas for the year. The report gave considerable attention to the threat posed by North Korean missile development, which has also prompted discussions elsewhere in the Japanese government about whether the self-defense restrictions in the constitution may be interpreted to permit pre-emptive strikes against an imminent threat. The white paper also reiterated Tokyo’s concerns about aggressive Chinese military activity in the South and East China Seas. Beijing responded on Wednesday, saying the “white paper once again made groundless accusations against China's normal defense and military activities, made irresponsible remarks on China's maritime activities and tried to stir up troubles on the South China Sea issue.”

There were also reports this week that Tokyo is in talks with Manila to transfer spare military helicopter parts to the Philippine armed forces. These discussions follow on a similar agreement reached last year and are part of a trend of increasing Japanese defense engagement in Southeast Asia.


On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Vietnamese counterpart Ngo Xuan Lich agreed to a U.S. aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam in 2018, a first in the growing defense relationship. A number of other U.S. naval vessels have pulled into port in Vietnam in recent years, as U.S. and Vietnamese interests in the South China Sea have increasingly aligned.


Indonesia and Russia signed a major defense memorandum of understanding last Friday, paving the way for the Indonesian Air Force to receive 11 Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets in the coming years. In exchange for the jets, Moscow will have its pick of Indonesian exports, including commodities like coffee and palm oil as well as defense products. The Su-35s will replace F-5Es which have been in service since the 1980s and join a mix of Su-27s, Su-30 MK/MK2s, and American F-16A/Bs in the Air Force’s fighter fleet.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

In the wake of Vietnam’s vocal role at last week’s ASEAN Regional Forum, Le Hong Hiep discussed at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute the evolution of Vietnam’s relationship with ASEAN over the past half-century. Hiep noted that “Vietnam’s accession to ASEAN marked a turning point in its foreign policy, and despite certain frustration now and then due to the grouping’s inability to forge a consensus on politically sensitive issues, it remains indispensable to Hanoi’s diplomacy in both economic and strategic terms.”

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative called out Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano for making misleading statements on Chinese land reclamation efforts and provided contradictory photographic evidence.

Water Wars is our weekly roundup of the latest news, analysis, and opinions related to ongoing tensions in the South and East China Seas. Please email Sarah Grant with breaking news, relevant documents, or corrections.

Jimmy Chalk is a JD candidate at Harvard Law School. Before law school, he worked for five years as a multimedia journalist in Latin America, primarily for The New York Times. He graduated cum laude from New York University.
Sarah Grant is a graduate of Harvard Law School and previously spent five years on active duty in the Marine Corps. She holds an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge and a BS in International Relations from the United States Naval Academy. The views expressed here are her own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, the Marine Corps, or any other agency of the United States Government.

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