WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has conducted back-to-back freedom of navigations operations in the South China Sea for the first time, further ramping up the more aggressive sailings that have been policy since the start of this year.
The freedom of navigation operations — known in Pentagon parlance as FONOP — occurred on Wednesday and Thursday and are “consistent with international law,” Cmdr. Reann Mommsenm a spokesperson for the Navy 7th Fleet, said in a Friday email to Reuters.
The FONOPs almost always stir harsh words from Beijing and sometimes action.
For example, after a FONOP in September, Chinese forces were mobilized to track the U.S. ship and signal it to depart, according to a statement then by the Chinese military. “We again stress that China has irrefutable sovereignty over the islands of the South China Sea and their nearby waters. No form of provocation by foreign military ships and aircraft can change this fact,” that statement said.
Recent FONOPs have cast shadows over already uncertain discussions between Washington and Beijing on a new trade agreement between the two countries. This week’s FONOPs come in the wake of U.S. and Chinese defense officials sparing behind closed doors and in open comments.
That includes Defense Secretary Mark Esper saying China must end it “bullying and unlawful activities,” and reinforcing that the U.S. “strongly oppose violations of international law by China and excessive claims in the South China Sea.”
Earlier this week Esper publicly accused Beijing of “increasingly resorting to coercion and intimidation to advance its strategic objectives” in the region. In return, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said he told Esper — behind closed doors – that the U.S. must stop flexing its muscles in the South China Sea to avoid adding “new uncertainties” over Taiwan.
On Thursday the USS Wayne E. Meyer, a guided-missile destroyer cruised past the Paracel Islands, according to Mommsen’s email statement. That region is claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, among others; this FONOP occurred one day after Esper visited Hanoi, Vietnam, and announced the Pentagon would be providing Vietnam with a Coast Guard ship.
On Wednesday, the USS Gabrielle Giffords, a littoral combat ship, conducted a FONOP close to 12 miles off Mischief Reef, a “low-tide” feature in the Spratly Islands and regular destination of such sailings, according to Mommsen’s email statement.
China’s claims in the South China Sea are challenged all or in part by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Beijing says its construction is necessary for self-defense.