How Close Was the Latest Close Call in the South China Sea?


China claims the sailing of a U.S. Navy warship on Saturday into what it calls its territory was needless provocation and an attempt at causing trouble amongst China’s neighbors. What precedent is there for these close calls in disputed maritime territories to escalate? How close was this close call? Had things in fact calmed down in recent weeks as the Chinese official press claimed, only to be stirred up again needlessly by this Freedom of Navigation sail? What’s at stake, in real terms: Numbers of shipping containers? Potential energy assets? The U.S.-China status quo? Lives? —The Editors

China has criticized the recent U.S. Navy operation sailing within what it considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea as needlessly provocative. In China’s view, the U.S. Navy has purposely inflamed tensions in the region in order to stir up opposition to China. While it is true that tensions have risen, and probably will continue to increase, in the South China Sea region over the past few years, the “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) that the U.S. has conducted cannot fairly be blamed for either creating or increasing these tensions. Why?

First, it is important to keep in mind that the FONOPs like the one China recently protested are part of a U.S. Navy policy that has been carried out all around the world since at least 1979. China is hardly the only country that has been the target of these operations. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, in 2014 the U.S. conducted similar FONOPs challenging excessive maritime claims by countries as diverse as Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Nicaragua, Oman, Peru, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Venezuela, and Vietnam. During that same year, the U.S. also conducted numerous FONOPs targeting excessive Chinese maritime claims along China’s mainland coast. But China’s Foreign Ministry did not condemn those FONOPs with the same heated language it is using today. Nor did Chinese state media attack those earlier U.S. actions as “provocative.” It is China, and not the U.S., that has transformed these relatively routine operations into a source of bilateral and regional tension.

Read more: