Senator Wants Navy Freedom of Navigation Operation Past Mischief Reef

July 12, 2016 11:56 AM
Aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) and guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) in the South China Sea. US Navy Photo
Aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN-74) and guided-missile destroyer USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) in the South China Sea. US Navy Photo

A vocal member of the Senate Armed Services Committee is calling for the U.S. Navy to challenge Chinese claims to artificial islands soon near the Philippines following a decision from an international tribunal that ruled against several Chinese claims in the South China Sea.

Specifically, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) called on the Obama administration to send Navy assets to contest Chinese territorial claims around their artificial island on Mischief Reef via a freedom of navigation operation.

“In the coming weeks the U.S. Navy should conduct a FON op at Mischief Reef, which the Hauge tribunal has determined is a low-tide elevation,” he said speaking at Center of Strategic and International Studies conference on the South China Sea on Tuesday.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska)
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska)

As part of the extensive ruling, the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) Arbitration Tribunal through the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague declared Mischief Reef a low tide elevation that does not, “generate entitlement to a territorial sea, exclusive economic zone or continental shelf.”

In the last three South China Sea FON ops conducted by U.S. guided missile destroyers, the U.S. ships transited by Chinese claims via innocent passage – a legal right in which a warship can quickly transit within a 12 nautical mile territorial sea without conducting any military operations.

However, the status of Mischief Reef – according to the ruling – would allow more than just an expeditious transit, Sullivan said.
“In Mischief Reef’s case that would allow military maneuver, a FON op beyond simple innocent passage and we need to look at all the options and I’m confident that our admirals are doing that,” he said.
“We shouldn’t be going through with just innocent passage. These FON ops should be based on what the international law allows.”

Navy officials said on Tuesday morning they could not discuss future operations. Currently, the Navy’s forward-deployed Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group is operating in the South China Sea.

While the service is loathe to broadcast FON ops before they occur, USNI News understands that U.S. Pacific Commander Adm. Harry Harris in the past has pushed for a FON op past Mischief Reef. Unlike other Chinese territorial claims in the Spratly Island chain, there is little ambiguity to the legal status of the island allowing a FON op to send a clear message to Beijing.

Sullivan, along with SASC chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), were both vocal in publically pushing the Obama administration to undertake more South China Sea FON ops following the innocent passage of a Chinese flotilla through U.S. territorial waters in Alaska in September.

“Early on in the administration, the FON ops seemed to be something that our administration was reluctant to undertake. It was clear there was some distention between different leaders in the Obama administration,” Sullivan said on Tuesday.

The U.S. has conducted three FON ops past Chinese holdings in the South China Sea since late October.

In late October, USS Lassen (DDG-84) conducted a FON op past the Chinese artificial holding on Subi Reef in the Spratlys. In January, USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) came within 12 nautical miles of a Chinese installation on Triton Island in the Paracel Island chain near Vietnam. In May USS William P. Lawrence (DDG-110) came within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese installation on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Island chain.

All three of the operations have met with fierce rhetoric from Beijing accusing the U.S. of violating Chinese territorial sovereignty.

In his speech at CSIS, Sullivan also called for the U.S. to examine basing two carrier strike groups in the Western Pacific and stepping up U.S. surface and aviation operations in the region.

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone

Sam LaGrone is the editor of USNI News. He has covered legislation, acquisition and operations for the Sea Services since 2009 and spent time underway with the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and the Canadian Navy.
Follow @samlagrone

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