Foreign Relations & International Law

Water Wars: U.S. Naval Collisions Are “No Setback” for FONOPs and Flyovers

Eliot Kim
Friday, September 1, 2017, 5:15 PM

Commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces says FONOPs and Flyovers in the South China Sea will Continue, while More Changes Are Expected for U.S. Military Brass in Asia

Editor's note: After this edition, we will publish Water Wars every other week.

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Commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces says FONOPs and Flyovers in the South China Sea will Continue, while More Changes Are Expected for U.S. Military Brass in Asia

Editor's note: After this edition, we will publish Water Wars every other week.

This week, the U.S. military continued to grapple with the fallout following the collision involving the USS John McCain, while news reports suggest further changes in the military’s leadership in the Pacific.

Last Friday, General Terrence O’Shaughnessy, Commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces insisted that casualties from the USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald accidents would pose “no setback” to Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) or overflights in the South China Sea. Speaking to reporters in Kuala Lumpur, O’Shaughnessy maintained that the U.S. military still had “credibility…all over the world” and that the accidents should not “overshadow the great capability that the United States of American brings across all services.” He went on to declare that the U.S. would “sail and fly anywhere where international rules allow.”

Then on Monday, U.S. Rear Admiral Don Gabrielson criticized China’s actions in the Asia Pacific region, while avoiding any mention of the USS McCain collision. Speaking in Singapore at the 16th annual Southeast Asian Cooperation and Training (SEACAT) Exercise, Gabrielson warned that “everyone who has an interest in the region [must] understand that if the world does not come together protect its own interests, then China will do everything it can to protect what it sees as its interests at the cost of anyone else.” Gabrielson also urged Southeast Asian nations participating in SEACAT to prevent China from using unilateral actions to undermine the “existing system” built on international norms and agreements.

While General O’Shaughnessy and Admiral Gabrielson defended U.S. naval activity in the South and East China Seas through their separate remarks, Vice Admiral Phil Sawyer arrived in Yokosuka, Japan, the headquarters of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, on Friday after assuming command of the fleet several days earlier. His predecessor was relieved of command following the collision of the USS McCain, which like the USS Fitzgerald is part of the Seventh Fleet.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration is considering nominating Admiral Harry Harris as ambassador to Australia. The nomination appears to be unrelated to the recent collisions; Admiral Harris is serving the last year of his post as commander of the U.S. Pacific Command. Earlier this year, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States reportedly asked President Trump to fire Harris, who has a history of advocating for a hardline response to China’s activities in the South China Sea; however, Chinese officials have denied such reports. According to U.S. officials, the leading contender to replace Admiral Harris is Admiral Scott Swift, the current commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

In Other News…


Chief of Staff of the Philippine Armed Forces General Eduardo Año told reporters on Tuesday that the Philippine military will continue to develop Pag-Asa, a disputed island in the South China Sea. Año explained that the military campaign in Marawi City had not impacted the Philippine government’s plan to improve facilities on Pag-Asa and stated that “improv[ing] the conditions on Pag-Asa Island, especially refurbishing and renovat[ing] the runway” remained a priority for the government. General Año first unveiled these plans in April alongside Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana during a surprise trip to the island, which is also known as Thitu. Año’s statement came a few weeks after a Chinese flotilla encircled part of Sandy Cay, a cluster of uninhabited sandbars only several kilometers away from Thitu.


Last Friday, Taiwan replied to criticism from Vietnam over recent live-fire drills conducted by the Taiwanese Coast Guard near Itu Aba, the largest island in the disputed Spratly archipelago. Vietnamese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang criticized the drills as “serious violations” of Vietnam’s sovereignty that “threaten peace, stability, safety and maritime security.” Hang went on to state that Vietnam “resolutely opposes” the drills and “demands [that] Taiwan not repeat such exercises.” In response, Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs defended Taiwan’s “right to conduct routine drills” since “Taiping Island is part of [Taiwan’s] territory.” The Taiwanese foreign ministry further stated that Taiwan is willing to work with relevant countries to promote peace and stability if those countries are willing to negotiate on equal footing and to commit to joint development of resources.


Representatives from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) convened in Manila this Wednesday for the 22nd Joint Working Group meeting on the Implementation of the Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying, the parties were also scheduled to discuss the Code of Conduct (COC) during the meeting. Earlier this month, the foreign ministers of China and the member states of ASEAN formally endorsed a framework for negotiating the COC. Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano predicted that there will be “candid and productive dialogue [at the Joint Working Group meeting] aimed at confidence-building and identifying practical areas for cooperation in the South China Sea.”


The Japan Times reported this week that Japan’s National Police Agency will equip Okinawa’s prefectural police forces with “large helicopters” to transport officers to remote islands, including the disputed Senkaku islands. Currently, Japan’s Coast Guard carries police officers to Senkaku, which is also known as Diaoyu in China. Though the report did not specify what type of helicopters will be provided, the helicopters will be large enough for 20 to 30 passengers.

Analysis, Commentary, and Additional Information

Much of this week’s commentary focused on the series of recent U.S. naval collisions in the Asia Pacific region. In The Straits Times, Jonathan G. Odom suggests that other nations operating in the region need to review their implementation of the Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS). Odom, who is a judge advocate for the U.S. Navy, concludes that the U.S. has implemented COLREGS through various laws and protocols. Sam Bateman of The Lowry Institute disagrees that the root of the problem is other nations’ lack of compliance with COLREGS. Instead, Bateman urges the U.S. Navy to reconsider its own policy toward Automatic Identification System (AIS), a system that improves navigational safety and helps avoid collisions. AIS is required for commercial vessels, but not for warships; in fact, neither the McCain nor the Fitzgerald was displaying AIS data to other ships when their respective collisions occurred.

In iPolitics, Adam P. MacDonald urges Canada’s political and military leaders to prepare the Royal Canadian Navy for more active engagement in East Sea. MacDonald explains that since it is only a matter of time before the Trump administration requests Canada to conduct a FONOP in the South China Sea, the Canadian government must consider its position on maritime disputes in the region and ask itself under what conditions Canada would support US military action in the South China Sea.

Finally, Captain Tuan N. Pham, a career U.S. naval officer, pushes back on growing concerns that the U.S. has already lost the South China Sea. Pham argues in The Diplomat that strategic shifts that favor China such as Manila’s shift to Beijing are not permanent. In fact, Pham points out that there are also many indications like Japan’s outreach to Southeast Asian Nations or rising tensions between Vietnam and China that foretell geopolitical tides turning against China.

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

Eliot Kim is a JD candidate at Harvard Law School. Prior to law school he spent three years living in mainland China, including a year studying international relations at the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. Eliot is currently a member of Harvard's International Commercial Arbitration Moot Court Team and has previously been a research intern at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

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