Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
There are limited details about the recent U.S. Freedom of Navigation (FON) operation in the South China Sea on October 21, but by any account it surely did not achieve what some had advocated: challenging China’s installations on artificial land in the Spratly Islands. Instead, if press accounts and expert analysis (such as Julian Ku’s post) are correct, the USS Decatur challenged Chinese claims to “straight baselines” surrounding the separate Paracel Islands, which the U.S. government has long claimed are excessive. By challenging an explicit claim on the grounds that it exceeds what international law supports, such a maneuver is a textbook FON operation. A military maneuver designed to challenge China’s Spratly Islands construction is far less clear-cut.
This most recent FON operation was the first publicly known instance since May. This is not necessarily extraordinary, but an anonymous source told Reuters in November 2015 the challenges would occur “about twice a quarter or a little more than that,” which many observers took as a reference point. The Decatur’s operation took place 164 days—almost two full quarters— after the last public report on May 10 and some had begun to question U.S. resolve.
But the public maneuvers from May 10 and October 21 are not necessarily the only recent examples of U.S. FON operations. Last month, Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel implied not all FON operations are announced, saying “some things are only visible to people with radar and tracking.” The U.S. government does, however, publish an annual report describing which “excessive claims” by which countries the FON program challenged through “DoD operational assertions and activities.”
If the dominant interpretation of last week’s FON operation is correct and it was indeed designed to challenge China’s “excessive straight baselines,” this is nothing new in the U.S. FON program. As shown in the chart below, the Defense Department’s annual reports show challenges to China’s baselines in fiscal years 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015 (the last year for which data is available). U.S. Naval War College Professor James Kraska is reported as saying that the January 2016 USS Curtis Wilbur FON operation in the Paracels also challenged the straight baselines—noting that previous challenges had been in the air, versus on the water’s surface—though official government statements at the time did not specifically mention baselines.