How we judge the success of the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Mischief Reef last week depends on what it was supposed to achieve. Was it intended to address a legal problem or a strategic one?
To be more specific, did it aim to contest China’s claim of a 12-nautical mile territorial sea around a low tide elevation contrary to the generally accepted interpretation of international maritime law? Or did it aim to contest China’s challenge to U.S. strategic leadership in Asia?
If it was the former, then last week’s FONOP was probably a success. China will, of course ignore it, but in the arcane world of international law, the USS Dewey’s transit within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in “normal mode,” symbolized by the conduct of a man overboard exercise during the transit, plainly signalled America’s rejection of China’s claim to those waters as territorial sea, and thus prevented that claim becoming gradually established by default.
On the other hand, if the aim was to counter China’s challenge to U.S. strategic primacy, then it was surely a failure. To see why, we need to understand what’s really happening in the South China Sea. What we see there is a stark display of power politics. The ostensible legal issues simply provide the setting for a contest of demonstrated resolve. Beijing is trying to defy Washington’s traditional regional maritime supremacy and undermine American leadership, by showing that the United States is not willing to risk a military confrontation with China on behalf of its friends and allies and in defence of the U.S.-led order.