US FONOP in the South China Sea and its Associated Risks?
USS Chancellorsville operated in the South China Sea, November 2022. Photo: U.S. Navy.

In the past, there have been claims that U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs), despite being a convenient tool for the Navy to exert presence and interpretation of the law of the sea, can contain several limits.

1. FONOP is highly risky, putting American lives in danger:

China can deploy its ships close to the FONOP’s vessels at any moment. The U.S. ships not only weighs thousands of tons, but they also travel at high speed, and as a result, are not easy to change direction or to stop. If direction changed, such ships can be effected by the “Venturi effect”, which might cause collision with a parallel-moving ships. In 2019, the

2. If conflict were to happen, it would be difficult to de-escalate:

Unlike the Hainan Island incident in 2001 (which was successfully de-escalated), both the U.S. and China are now locked in a different dynamic. Due to increasing great powers competition, both parties need to demonstrate their strength, that they are not easily compromised. Moreover, halted communication channels between both sides, rising anti-China in the U.S. as well as China’s nationalism, all contribute to this dreadlock.

3. It is challenging for the U.S. to reach an internal consensus on the importance of FONOP:

FONOP is used by the U.S. to advocate for global norms, instead of its own sovereignty, thus resulting in lesser support from its citizens. Younger voters in the U.S. are also slowly losing confidence in the U.S. military.

In the meantime, the U.S. has alternatives. U.S. ships in the Pacific Ocean are already few in number and scattered. Instead of FONOP, the U.S. can implement economic deterrence measures (in which the U.S. has the leverage) or encourage its allies to carry out FONOP on its behalf.

These are not unfounded arguments, reflecting part of the U.S.’s domestic debate on FONOP. However, several points still need to be taken into account: 

  • Except for the incident in 2018, U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea have not led to similar confrontation.
  • The aforementioned risks could also potentially occur to other forms of U.S. ship presence such as military exercises or port visits. For example, the encounter between USNS Impeccable and Chinese vessels in 2009 was not related to FONOP. 
  • New-gen U.S. destroyers in the South China Sea can move swifter, posing fewer risks. In 2022, the “lightning carrier” concept was tested in the South China Sea for the first time, paving ways for such deployment. 
  • FONOPs are the tool for the U.S. to challenge “excessive maritime claims”, while other deterrent measures may not carry this legal significance.
  • Besides the U.S., the U.K. and France have also conducted FONOPs in the South China Sea.
  • The U.S. did reduce the frequency of FONOPs in Biden administration (compared with the previous), possibly partly to avoid those aforementioned weaknesses.
  • Regional partners might see FONOPs as a sign of commitment from the U.S. If there were none, skepticism might rise.

The post is originally published here