After the “close encounter of the unsafe kind” last week between US Navy destroyer USS Decatur and Chinese destroyer Lanzhou during a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) conducted by the American ship in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the Spratlys, the US Pacific Fleet is drafting a classified proposal for a series of operations involving warships, combat aircraft and troops to show that the United States has the power and the capability to counter any opponent on any front. A part of the US Indo-Pacific Command, the US Pacific Fleet is the world’s largest fleet command with 200 naval vessels, almost 1,200 aircraft and over 130,000 personnel under its command.
Reports indicate that USS Decatur – whose motto is “In Pursuit of Peace” – was concluding its FONOP and was already headed out of the 12-nautical mile zone around Gaven Reef when the Chinese ship came within 41 meters – which could have resulted in a collision had the US destroyer not maneuvered away.
For several decades now, the US has been conducting FONOPs all over the world to uphold a rules-based international order and challenge excessive (territorial) claims of countries. In conducting these sail-by operations, the US has consistently declared that it will “fly, sail, and operate anywhere (that) international law allows.”
In the South China Sea, the conduct of FONOPs by the United States has been acknowledged by US strategists as critical in maintaining the balance of power and ensuring the free flow of commerce considering that an estimated $5 trillion of global trade passes through this critical waterway.
We can expect more FONOPs under the administration of President Donald Trump, although these sail-by operations are planned in absolute secrecy. Last May, the US made a strong assertion when two of its warships – the destroyer USS Higgins and the cruiser USS Antietam – conducted FONOPs in the Paracel Islands. It was the first time that two US Navy ships were involved in a freedom of navigation operation.