The Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) simply shouldn’t have made it onto mainstream media. This doesn’t mean the operation wasn’t important, far from it. But the whole point of FONOPs is that they are supposed to be a standard, unimportant and expected action.
Three dynamics were at play in last week’s FONOP. Firstly, one must consider the timing and the political contexts in China and the US. Second is the intended audience of the operation. And third is the system of the international legal environment driving the two Pacific powers’ actions.
The setup is relatively simple. China considers its territorial waters in the East and South China Seas part of its national borders. As such, Beijing thinks foreign vessels should register with it before passage, which, if the islands are islands, would be a reasonable wish. China has also been dredging artificial islands to qualify for greater territorial control, much to the chagrin its neighbours.
Of course, the story gets a bit trickier depending on the definition of the geography in question. There are four basic terms. An “island” is natural, habitable and visible at high-tide. It is then granted a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea and a 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. A “rock” is natural, uninhabitable and visible at high-tide with a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea but no exclusive economic zone.
A “low tide elevation” is covered by water but visible at high-tide, and gets no territorial sea. An “artificial island” however is unnatural, habitable and visible at high-tide, but is only granted a 500-metre safety zone, not a territorial sea. The US and China use the same nomenclature, but have different interpretations about what other nations can do inside those waters.
China interprets its landmasses as “islands” and therefore as sovereign territory. If this is true it comes with a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea and a 200-mile exclusive economic zone. The US argues the landmasses are only “low tide elevations” or “artificial islands,” which means US warships are following international legal structures to steam within the 12-nautical-mile limit.
So, what really should have been a standard procedure actually has a number of dangerous moving parts. The operation was announced to the media eight hours before the USS Lassen entered the region, but the game began earlier this year. Newly-appointed US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter then boldly stated the US Navy would conduct FONOPS regardless of Chinese actions.
But then nothing happened for months. The US paused all FONOPS in the region but continued to decry China’s special claims around the islets. Then suddenly last week the US decided it was time to go. It might seem surprising, but the political climates in Washington and Beijing can explain.
Chinese President Xi Jingping has consolidated power faster than his predecessors, but this power is fragile. He is struggling to hold onto Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership as his anti-corruption campaign targets the big players. The Chinese economy may also be slipping into a period of prolonged low growth, forcing Mr Xi to painfully upgrade the system.
All of this is leading to high political uncertainty behind the scenes in Beijing. While the anti-corruption campaign will help the country develop, it threatens to split the CCP apart. Chinese state media reports that more than half of the 205 members of the central committee had been moved to different positions or fired. Mr Xi is also aiming at military officials.
In response, coup rumours are becoming more common. A British newspaper says one attempt was foiled as recently as March. This could be interpreted as a sign of Mr Xi’s overall power, but there is an air of theatre around the Chinese leader. The CCP’s focus on the water ticks two boxes by distracting Chinese citizens with nationalism, and displays the military as in prime position. But Mr Xi needed a win at Subi Reef and doesn’t appear to have got it.
In the US, President Barack Obama is transitioning his country away from a war-footing. He sees an opportunity in Asia to create a “new normal” for the US in a post-9/11 era. The rapprochement with Iran aside, although a major part of this overall strategy, it becoming clear Mr Obama’s Middle East efforts are hands-off.
Not so in Asia Pacific. This year has proven the US must engage with its allies in the region which, if it plays coolly, can achieve remarkable geopolitical success. The completed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) for example, is integral to Mr Obama’s “Asia Pivot”. It’s really no coincidence then that Mr Obama timed the Lassen passage to occur within a month of signing the TPP.
And the intended audience knows this to be true. The Lassen’s home port is Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. Coupled with this fact is that the Japanese government has reformed its defence policy to allow greater bandwidth in foreign operations. The US/Japan relationship is all but unbreakable, but no one in East Asia, and least of all China, is keen for a reinvigorated Japan throwing its weight around.
Bear in mind that the Lassen also steamed within 12 nautical miles of other islets claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, proving the FONOP was not aimed at China. But it also showed that the US is serious in maintaining security in the crowded seas. The US wants for its allies to share in the security burden, but most can’t yet contend with the Chinese navy alone.
Overarching all this is the rarely-discussed facet of US grand strategy for the high seas. Washington guarantees the safe passage of any vessel in international waters according to UNCLOS stipulations. It does this by fielding the largest naval force in history. The concept of the international community is therefore parallel to US grand strategy and it will not let another country splinter that model.
The US argues the Lassen operation met the standards of “innocent passage”. But it also called the bluff that Beijing would aggressively defend the waters. It didn’t, and there’s a deeper reason for why.
China could have rejected the UNCLOS or announced new rules, but it didn’t. Beijing is fighting back against those international rules, in doing so shows it wishes to operate within that framework, however aggressively. In other words, China wants to be part of the international community, the question is whether it or the US will be the custodian of those rules. The Lassen shows the score.