Home » Budget Industry » SECDEF Carter Clarifies South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Operation in Letter to McCain


SECDEF Carter Clarifies South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Operation in Letter to McCain

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)

After two months, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter provided a clear explanation of an U.S. Oct. 27 South China Sea freedom of navigation operation (FON op) that both enraged China and left domestic maritime observers with lingering questions on American intentions.

In a Dec. 22 letter to Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sen. John McCain, Carter outlined the mission of USS Lassen (DDG-82) that tested territorial claims of not only China but Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Lassen transited “inside 12 nautical miles of five maritime features in the Spratly Islands — Subi Reef, Northeast Cay, Southwest Cay, South Reef, and Sandy Cay — which are claimed by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Philippines,” wrote Carter.
“The FONOP involved a continuous and expeditious transit that is consistent with both the

right of innocent passage, which only applies in a territorial sea, and with the high seas freedom

of navigation that applies beyond any territorial sea.”

Chinese Subi Reef facilities in April 2015. Digital Globe Photo via The Diplomat

Chinese Subi Reef facilities in April 2015. Digital Globe Photo via The Diplomat

Innocent passage is a type of transit in which — under maritime law — a warship can enter a territorial sea of another country without warning but must refrain from any military action like activating radars, firing weapons, transmitting propaganda or conduct drills.

In particular, Carter explained why Lassen moved past Subi Reef — a Chinese-built artificial island in the Spratly Islands — in the manner of an innocent passage.

“We believe that Subi Reef, before China turned it into an artificial island, was a low-tide elevation and that it therefore cannot generate its own entitlement to a territorial sea. However, if it is located within 12 nautical miles of another geographic feature that is entitled to a territorial sea – as might be the case with Sandy Cay – then the low-water line on Subi Reef could be used as the baseline for measuring Sandy Cay’s territorial sea,” wrote Carter.
“In those circumstances, Subi Reef could be surrounded by a 12-nautical mile-territorial sea despite being submerged at high tide in its natural state. Given the factual uncertainty, we conducted the FONOP in a manner that is lawful under all possible scenarios to preserve U.S. options should the factual ambiguities be resolved, disputes settled, and clarity on maritime claims reached.”

USS Lassen (DDG 82) is underway in 2013. US Navy Photo

USS Lassen (DDG 82) is underway in 2013. US Navy Photo

Carter’s description confirms the account constructed in the trade and popular press in the weeks following the operation but not officially confirmed by the Pentagon on orders from the White House leading to “confusion that was completely unnecessary,” Gregory Poling with the Center for Strategic and International Studies Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative told USNI News on Tuesday.
“They should have released the statement a week after the operation not after two months of hand wringing.”
Another expert was critical of the innocent passage by Subi Reef and the ambiguity it might create.

“Observing innocent passage in the vicinity of Subi Reef was a bad idea,” James Kraska, professor in the Stockton Center for the Study of International Law at the Naval War College, told USNI News on Tuesday.
“The United States is making China’s — or some future claimant’s — far-fetched argument for them rather than protecting and promoting its own interests and asserting its long-standing liberal theory of navigational rights.”

 

  • Eric Arllen

    Assuming there was a set of strategic reasons for conducting the FONOP that were and are in our best long and short term interests, and there certainly should have been (sadly, for this administration that cannot be assumed), the public reason given for the transit should be fully supportive of those national interests. This is axiomatic. And, of course, the thought process leading to the FONOP, including the impact of public statements, should have been staffed and shaped well before the actual transit was ordered.

    The long delay getting out this rather pale and potentially confining public response indicates the presence of concernful problems in the internal planning and coordination processes. Not confidence building. But with this administration its normal mode is SNAFU.

    • RobM1981

      I won’t post above this – it’s spot on. This administration continues in SNAFU mode, for sure.

      Two months… seriously?

  • WRBaker

    Innocent Passage, with all its restrictions, half-way gives the Chinese what they are pressing for – recognition of their claims to almost all of the South China Sea.
    What will happen, as it likely will, when another country tries to do the same thing or, ignore what the U.S. did, and fly over and/or sail around these international waters?
    While it’s a cinch that the U.S. is treading over the issue, other countries aren’t quite as PC as the U.S. is.

  • publius_maximus_III

    “Give me a fast ship, for I intend to get the heck out of China’s way.” — JPJ

  • Curtis Conway

    The administration evidently is supported by Sea Lawyers instead of those capable JAG Corps individuals with which I served who understood the American mindset and defending liberty around the planet. Of course those who do not believe in ‘Liberty for Everyone . . . well they have different ideas . . . and required Subjects not Citizens.

  • KC135TopBoom

    There is no need for any FONOP near the artificial islands built by China, or anyone else. These are international waters and should be treated as such. Don’t build China’s case for new and illegally taken territory. But then again, maybe that is just what Obama and Carter are trying to do. After all, there is no reason for this current administration to want to support our allies of Taiwan and the Philippines, or our friends in Vietnam. Giving into an aggressive China is what is important to Obama.

  • G Man

    US must stop apologizing action in South china sea. It is obvious that China is playing blaming game with US. United States of America look very weak every time the US explains and apologizing their actions in International waterways.
    CHINA STARTED ALL OF THESE SERIOUS PROVOCATION WHEN THEY CREATED FAKE ISLANDS NEAR OR IN THE INTERNATIONAL SEA LANE. 
    China is just building Fake Islands in South china sea contested area and then claim it as theirs sovereign area. They are using their military power to scare those countries that opposes of their activities in South china sea. SCARING TACTICS BY CHINA.
    China is using reverse psychology by blaming other countries of provocation in South china sea so as the World will not see China as the sole instigator in SCS by building Fake islands near or in the INTERNATIONAL SEA LANE. 
    CHINA IS VERY GREEDY, SELFISH, AND DECEITFUL COUNTRY
    CHINA’S PROVOCATIVE ACTION IN SOUTH CHINA SEA MUST BE STOP SO THE WORLD WILL BE ABLE TO LIVE IN PEACE.

  • Pingback: Taiwan Study Chinese | write-thai . thailand spices()

  • Secundius

    @ The Hard Man.

    Who’s Wife owns considerable Stock Holding’s of PetroChina, PRC. And has a Husband the also serves on the US Senate Armed Services Committee. TAKE A WILD GUESS???

    • The Dead Rabbits

      Who? Ted Cruz? I suppose it means less now that China’s stock market is such an abortion.

      • Secundius

        @ The Hard Man.

        Try Cindy-Lou McCain and Senator John S. McCain, II…

        • The Dead Rabbits

          Well, at least she is losing her shirt in 2016.

          • Secundius

            @ The Hard Man.

            How’s she doing that? Didn’t she take over Hensley & Co., and made a Ton of Money preventing the Belgium’s from buying Anheuser-Bush Beer. And is also the SOLE Distributor of the Beer for the State of Arizona. Not mention a Board Member of the National Beer Wholesalers Association. And also has Holding’s in Bahrain and the Sudan…

          • The Dead Rabbits

            If she is heavy into Chinese stocks.

          • Secundius

            @ The Hard Man.

            Approximately 66.8% of the US Congress (House and Senate) have Outsourcing Projects Dealings with the PRC. McCain, just being one of them, he’s not going to do ANYTHING STUPID to jeopardize that Arrangement. He can “Talk-the-Talk” all He Wants, but he’s NOT going to “Walk-the-Walk” to KILL the “GOLDEN GOOSE” or “GOLDEN PEKING DUCK”…

  • Pingback: PACOM CO Harris: More US South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Missions Are Coming | News4Security()