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

May 29, 2017 11:11 AM - Updated: July 2, 2017 8:53 AM

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.

Cid Standifer

Cid Standifer is a freelance reporter, web designer and translator. She has written for Stars and Stripes, Military Times, Inside Washington Publishers and the Roswell Daily Record.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox