Why US FON Operations in the South China Sea Make Sense


The U.S. Freedom of Navigation (FON) Program has recently drawn significant attention in the United States and the international community. During this period of focused attention, some observers have questioned the legality of U.S. FONOPs. This author has previously outlined the legality and legitimacy of the U.S. FON Program, including FONOPs conducted as part of that program. Other observers have also questioned the appropriateness and wisdom of U.S. FONOPs, particularly in the South China Sea. A prime example would be a recent critique by Dr. Sam Bateman of Australia, in which he alleged that U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea “don’t make sense.” This followed a similar piece that he published in June 2015. Although Dr. Bateman asks some valid questions about the ongoing South China Sea situation, he makes incorrect assumptions on several points about U.S. FONOPs and misses the mark on several others. Below is an attempt to set the record straight on the matter, based upon this author’s prior experience with the U.S. FON Program at the operational, theater, and policy levels of the U.S. military.

Need for Clarity Does Not Start with the US

In Dr. Bateman’s analysis of the South China Sea situation, he understandably turns on a spotlight calling for clarity, but he unfortunately aims that spotlight in the wrong direction. Specifically, he complains, “It’s not clear just what the Washington is protesting in the South China Sea.” To be sure, lack of clarity is a component of this complex South China Sea problem, and this author has previously argued that greater clarity could help to improve the overall South China Sea situation. However, the need for greater clarity begins not with Washington, but with the claimant states – and particularly with Beijing.

China has never clarified the meaning of the U-shaped line. That is the official determination of the United States, Singapore, Indonesia, and a number of other non-claimant states. It is even the assessment of Wu Shicun, the president of China’s National Institute for the South China Sea Studies, who wrote in his 2013 book that the debate on China’s U-shaped line “will continue if China remains silent and keeps its claim ambiguous.” Most recently and perhaps most importantly, that was also a finding by the Arbitral Tribunal in the Philippines-China arbitration case, who stated it is a “fact” that “China has not clarified the meaning of the nine-dash line.”

Read more: http://thediplomat.com/2015/10/why-us-fon-operations-in-the-south-china-sea-make-sense/