Home » Budget Industry » UPDATED: A Brief History of U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea

UPDATED: A Brief History of U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea

Over the past three years, the U.S. and China have been at odds over the status of Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea and U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations. 

The Origin of FON Ops

The U.S. government initiated a Freedom of Navigation Program to contest “unilateral acts of other states designed to restrict the rights and freedom of the international community.” The program includes both maneuvers designed exclusively to challenge maritime claims the U.S. considers excessive, and operations with other purposes that incidentally challenge territorial claims.

China Taken to Court
Jan. 22, 2013

The Philippines announced that it was taking a case to a U.N. tribunal contesting China’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea. The Philippines argued that China overstepped its legal authority by allowing Chinese patrol vessels to block and board vessels trying to pass through contested waters.

Raising Islands

China ramped up dredging operations to turn two reefs, Subi and Mischief, in the Spratly Islands into artificial islands. While the reefs have been occupied by China since 1995, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam also claim ownership.

Warning Shouts
April 19, 2015

Mischief Reef in early 2016. CSIS Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative, DigitalGlobe Image

Spokesmen for the Philippine government accused a Chinese ship of being “aggressive” toward a Philippine military plane on patrol in the South China Sea near Subi Reef. The Chinese ship flashed lights and told the plane via radio, “You’re entering Chinese territory, leave,” according to Philippine military spokesman Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc. Manila claimed the plane was flying over Filipino waters.

China Tiptoes Into Bering Strait
Sept. 2, 2015

A photo of Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy warships in 2014. PLAN Photo

Five Chinese warships crossed into U.S. territorial waters heading south out of the Bering Sea, exercising the “innocent passage” clause in maritime law that allows a warship to cross into another country’s maritime territory legally.

Lassen Buzzes Reefs
Oct. 26, 2015

USS Lassen (DDG-82) passed within 12 nautical miles of Subi and Mischief reefs.

‘Innocent’ Or ‘Irresponsible’
Jan. 29-30, 2016

An undated aerial view of Triton Island.

Chinese state-controlled media lambasted the US Navy after USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54) passed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island in the Paracel Island Chain, calling the maneuver “unprofessional and irresponsible.” The Pentagon said the operation was in keeping with the Law of the Sea Convention’s article governing “innocent passage” through a nation’s territorial waters.

Classify or Magnify?
April 28, 2016

Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Sen. John McCain in 2015.

Chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) criticized Defense Secretary Ash Carter for his reluctance to detail U.S. presence operations in the South China Sea during a Senate hearing.

Playing With Fire
May 10, 2016

Fiery Cross Reef in September 2015. CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe Photo

USS William Lawrence (DDG-110) sailed within 12 nautical miles of Fiery Cross Reef, a contested artificial island in the Spratly Island chain.

Hague Rules with Philippines
July 12, 2016

Scarborough Shoal. NASA Photo

A U.N. tribunal sided with the Filipino government, ruling against China’s claim to historic rights over the South China Sea. However, the UN has no mechanism to enforce its ruling. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement claiming the tribunal’s decision “is invalid and has no binding force,” and that “China does not accept or recognize it.”

Experts Recommend FON Ops
Sept. 21, 2016

At a House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee hearing, experts in the South China Sea and maritime law recommended the U.S. step up Freedom of Navigation Operations and include allies like Japan.

China Tails Decatur
Oct. 21, 2016

Guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG-73) operates in the South China Sea on Oct. 13, 2016

USS Decatur (DDG-73) conducted a freedom of navigation operation near the Paracel Islands. According to Reuters, three Chinese ships shadowed the Decatur, which traveled without escort ships.

FON OPs To Come
April 26, 2017

U.S. Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris on Feb. 25, 2016 addressing reporters in the Pentagon. DoD News Image

U.S. Pacific Command commander Adm. Harry Harris told lawmakers China was being “aggressive” and predicted the Navy would carry out Freedom of Navigation operations “soon.”

More Mischief
May 26, 2017

USS Dewey (DDG-105) transits the South China Sea on May 6, 2017. US Navy Photo

USS Dewey (DDG-105) passed within six nautical miles of Mischief Reef, zig-zagging near the island and conducting a man overboard drill, according to a U.S. official.

Triton Test
July 2, 2017

CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative/DigitalGlobe Photo

USS Stethem (DDG-63) passed by Triton Island in the Paracel Island chain on Sunday to test claims by not only Bejing but also Vietnam and Taiwan.

USNI News Editor Sam LaGrone contributed to this report.

  • David Geaslin

    The Chinese should be thanked for their creative thinking concerning the use of building on internationally shared properties in the open ocean. They have created a use for previously unused resources. This would be applauded if China had not claimed the soverenty over the whole sea and then tried to deny freedom of navigation. This is going to be a problem for the international research community.

    I think we and our allies should consider conducting joint geophysical research projects to map the marine and subsea resources within the South China Sea before a conflict breaks out. We could easily put jack-up drilling rig platforms in all the international atoll systems to explore the oceanic flora and fauna resources and how to best protect the environment if subsea resources warranted production. The United States has many rigs in storage that can be used.

    Of course, on each rig we would need to have a weather radar to have an adequate typhoon warning system, surface radars to be able to warn ships away to assure safe separation, and air surveillance radars to control resupply by helicopters.

    With the increase in piracy worldwide, it would only be prudent to have a security force on each research facility to protect the United States and Allied citizens from hostile pirates that might want to seize the research stations and ransom the scientists and crew members.

    Of course, these rigs would be temporary and easily relocated to the next research site unless an economic discovery warranted adding permanent facilities at the site such as dredging to create logistic runways and living facilities for scientific research.

    I think a cooperative effort such as this would be of incredible benefit. The international resources of the South China Sea could be accessed by all willing to invest without restricting freedom of navigation.

    • Stephen

      China has occupied oceanic space within the EEZ of the Philippines; denying traditional fishing grounds to Filipino commercial enterprise. PLAN has taken an undersea probe from a NOAA/USNS vessel. May not be acts of war, certainly merits a response. PLAN cannot be allowed to function as a lawless piracy. Wait until the Philippines are informed that it was once an exploratory colony of Ancient China & will be repatriated…

  • incredulous1

    FINALLY,… we get a FonOps that is NOT INNOCENT PASSAGE. Obama’s “FonOps” not conducting drills and staying right at a 12 mile distance only reinforced the PRC’s claims to the islands. I consider both Obama and Jinping to have usurped the UN’s ruling on the bogus Chinese claim to those features. And a number of these features are NOT “internationally shared” but are sovereign territory the least of which would belong to China under international law to which they are signatories. So finally the US does something to help the UN with enforcement of it’s ruling. I completely agree with the jack-up placement idea and was very disappointed to see the Australians go back on on their promise of a JV for exploration with the Philippines. I have long thought a multi-national if not UN force stationed on the neutral islands not belonging to any nation would allow each nation to enjoy what is rightfully theirs without threat of imperialistic coercion by the PLAN. Of course, Duterte has now made himself the main impediment to progress. To him the EDCA means nothing and he has issued a slap in the face to both the US and Japan in exchange for their FM lend/lease donations of vessels and aircraft.
    FINALLY, China should be expelled as a permanent member of the Security Council since they announced that the ICJ had no authority and that their ruling was invalid. What’s more, Japan has petitioned the UN for a seat on the Security Council for a long time and is now taking increased responsibility right alongside the US for regional security. This is all about appeasement. If allowed to consolidate these gains, does anyone really think that China won’t try to realize the “First Island Chain” portion of their “Chinese Dream?”

  • Centaurus

    I think a temporary placement of a Marine Expeditionary Force on an oil rig or some kind of Gilligan’s Island or perhaps, an atoll, would send a message ? Perhaps give them some Backpack Nukes as a Strategic Deterrent. Hmmm, maybe not a good idea, or a great idea.

  • John B. Morgen

    I don’t expect any change in American foreign policy over the South China Sea issues, nor any corrective action will be implemented against China. I don’t see any difference between the Obama and the Trump regimes’ in handling China. No one doesn’t want to harm the Big Panda in the room.