On May 10, seven Republican and Democratic senators sent a letter to U.S. President Donald Trump urging his administration to resume the United States’ freedom of navigation operations, or FONOPs, in the South China Sea. The timing of the bipartisan letter was striking. Senior lawmakers chose a moment when Washington was consumed by a number of political crises, including the ouster of former FBI Director James Comey, to press their case about naval operations thousands of miles away.
They had good reason to do so. The Trump administration has not yet carried out any FONOPs in the South China Sea, giving up one of the essential tools the United States can use to protest China’s expansive territorial claims there. By failing to send U.S. ships and planes past Chinese outposts in the waterway, Washington has neglected to remind Beijing that it does not regard China’s position there as legal or legitimate.
It is possible that U.S. officials have scaled back their focus on the South China Sea as part of a broader gambit to gain China’s favor, perhaps hoping to secure Beijing’s cooperation on North Korea and concessions on trade. Such a transaction, however, would undermine the United States’ position in Asia. And even if that is not the Trump administration’s reasoning, pausing the FONOPs will still have serious costs.