There is a growing consensus among experts that freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) are necessary but insufficient to safeguard U.S. interests in the South China Sea. In recent years, China has built artificial islands and military installations in the region and has pursued its maritime claims with more voracity. In response, the United States has sailed warships near land features claimed by China to ensure that the surrounding waters remain open in accordance with the law of the sea. These operations are neither designed to roll-back Chinese construction activities nor arbitrate territorial disputes in the South China Sea; instead, they are meant to preserve the navigational rights of all countries, and they have been conducted by the United States around the globe since 1979. Experts have thus recommended a variety of additional policies that the United States should adopt to address Chinese advances in the region, such as strengthening ties with local allies.
Yet FONOPs remain the poster child of U.S.-China competition in the South China Sea, and inadequate attention has been given to the need to better align public expectations with the limited but important goals that these operations are meant to achieve. Despite concerns that China will use their artificial land features to assert ownership of the surrounding seas, FONOPs have rarely been used to challenge territorial sea claims in the region, even when U.S. warships sail within twelve nautical miles (the maximum outer limit of a territorial sea) of these land features. For the public to understand this logic, and to deflate unnecessary expectations of FONOPs, officials and media reports must provide more clarity and information about the operations when these operations are made public. Failure to do so not only promotes an overblown image of FONOPS, but it perpetuates incentives to avoid more vigorously addressing Chinese advances in the region and sets up the stage for the operations to appear as failing in their mission.
One detail that is often missing from media reporting on FONOPs is “innocent passage.” According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, innocent passage is a right that foreign ships have to sail within another country’s territorial sea as long as they traverse the zone in a swift and direct manner without conducting any prohibited activities, such as military exercises and surveillance.