As the tempo of U.S. freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) under the administration of Donald Trump increases, some scholars have argued that the United States should reevaluate the program entirely to avoid unnecessarily provoking China. If FONOPs were intended purely to challenge China’s maritime claims on a legal front, this argument would have been reasonable. After all, China’s rejection of the PCA ruling in 2016 shows that the current struggle in the South China Sea is primarily a political rather than a legal one. However, the effects of U.S. FONOPs are primarily political. By conducting repeated FONOPs in the South China Sea, the United States could send clear and costly signals to China and other countries in the region that it will not tolerate unilateral changes in the maritime status quo.
The wisdom of maintaining regular FONOPs
Critics of the FONOPs program argue that it is unwise for the United States to conduct repeated FONOPs in the South China Sea because it risks provoking Chinese hostility and antagonism. This assertion rests on shaky grounds for several reasons. First, even though China has reacted angrily to U.S. FONOPs, its responses have been mostly limited to diplomatic statements of protest. China has not taken any substantive retributive action in response to these FONOPs. In fact, China recently backed the U.S. led Security Council resolution, which authorizes a new round of harsh sanctions on North Korea. While this is merely one example, it does show that U.S.-China relations are robust and therefore unlikely to be harmed by U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea.
The broader implication of the argument against FONOPs, however, is that the United States should generally avoid irking China as much as possible. This lack of resolve, however, is exactly why the United States has failed to counter China’s low-intensity “salami-slicing” strategy. While both the U.S and China should exercise restraint and avoid excessively challenging the other’s core interests lest it lead to an unwanted war, it should be clear that in any “game of chicken”, the side demonstrating stronger resolve will have the upper hand. China’s coercive actions against its neighbors and the unparalleled land reclamation program in the South China Sea surely harm U.S. interests and risk of provoking a Sino-U.S. conflict, but China has persisted. If the United States is to stop China from engaging in these unwanted actions, always erring “on the side of comity rather than that of hostility and antagonism” is not a good idea. In fact, excessive deference to Beijing can embolden rather than deter Chinese leaders from adventurous actions.
It is in U.S. interests to make it clear to all parties that the United States is constantly monitoring the situation and remains deeply engaged in the region’s affairs. Conducting FONOPs is not the only way of sending this signal, but it is one clear way of doing so. By executing repeated and regular FONOPs at different locations and at different points in time, Washington underscores its rejection of Beijing’s excessive territorial claims and its commitment to upholding the region’s rules-based order. It is therefore critical that the United States makes repeated FONOPs, and not just irregular, ad hoc ones.
Suddenly ending these supposedly “redundant” FONOPs could be calamitous, as the United States might inadvertently send the wrong signal to Beijing. After all, no one at the time knew that Acheson’s speech at the National Press Club would encourage North Korean aggression. This is why U.S. officials have repeatedly and publicly emphasized U.S. security commitments to allies, rather than letting the mutual defense treaties speak for themselves. If repeating one’s defense commitment is not considered a redundant behavior, it is unclear why conducting repeated FONOPs should be considered redundant. By the same logic, when it comes to FONOPs, conducting one too many is surely better than conducting one too few.
Necessary but not sufficient
This does not mean either that the United States absolutely must push for more FONOPs in the near future or that conducting FONOPs alone would be sufficient to deter China from pursuing its ambitious claims. In fact, if the United States shows that it is only willing to challenge China’s territorial claims via FONOPs, the results could be highly detrimental.
The point instead is that in order to convince Chinese leaders that they must reconsider their unilateral expansionist approach, countries must make costly signals in a consistent manner. FONOPs are a form of costly signal precisely because by conducting FONOPs, the United States incurs cost via the risk of military conflict with China, should vessels clash during the operation. However, FONOPs are insufficient in and of themselves because they do not actually challenge the territorial status quo. FONOPs alone will also not stop China from repeating another standoff like the Scarborough Shoal incident.
Therefore, if the United States seriously wants to stop Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, it will have to engage in some costly tit-for-tat actions. One way of doing so is to punish Chinese companies and individuals that are directly or indirectly connected to land reclamation efforts. Should China continue to make further advances in the South China Sea, the United States should immediately respond by also declaring that it will supply China’s neighbors with military hardware to effectively deny China’s ability to dominate the South China Sea or to hold on to any island that it decides to unilaterally seize in the future. These actions will be much costlier and would mark a significant change in U.S. policy toward the South China Sea disputes. U.S. policymakers therefore should debate their options thoroughly before embarking on a new policy. Until that change comes, conducting frequent FONOPs will be necessary to let China know that the United States is determined to resist its expansion in the South China Sea.