This latest FONOP stood out in that it showed an increased pace of such challenges coming only a little over a month since the last one in; it involved two US warships instead of the usual single one; and it targeted a Philippines-occupied feature as well as one occupied by China–perhaps because it was trying to appear that it was not singling out China. The details of the FONOP have not been revealed so it is unclear whether it was a challenge to China’s requirement for prior permission for warships to enter its territorial sea or whether it was a demonstration of a lack of recognition of territorial sovereignty over the low tide features themselves. The timing of the FONOP was also a bit unusual because it came on the heels of US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson’s meetings in Beijing with senior Chinese military leaders that focused on mitigating dangerous incidents between their warships. It also came on the very same day that the latest round of trade negotiations was beginning in Beijing. The previous FONOP also came during a round of the contentious trade talks.
The U.S. Navy insists that its FONOPs “are not about any one country, nor are they about making political statements” and thus there was no link between the FONOP and the trade talks. https://news.usni.org/2019/02/11/41017 That may well be the US intent. But that is not how China’s nationalists likely see it. They will probably think that the U.S. had such a lack of respect for China and the atmosphere of the trade talks that it went ahead with the FONOP even though it knew it would embarrass China’s leaders and might cast a pall over the negotiations. Given the context of the broader and more fundamental US-China struggle for dominance in Asia, this public display disrespect does not bode well for mitigating dangerous maritime incidents
The China –US differences over FONOPs are more political and strategic than legal. Nevertheless the US characterizes the dispute as ‘legal’ and that China is in the wrong. The U.S. maintains that it is simply exercising its ‘right’ to “fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows” including the right of its warships to sail in innocent passage through foreign territorial seas without prior permission.