Early Tuesday morning, the U.S. Navy confirmed that the USS Lassen, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, had completed the first in a series of planned freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. The operation is the strongest assertion yet by the U.S. Navy that it rejects any maritime claims for Chinese features that were submerged at low-tide in their original, pre-land reclamation state.
The FONOP does not, as some reporting has suggested, directly challenge or contest the sovereignty of specific maritime features in the South China Sea. The United States continues to take no position on the actual sovereignty of various disputed maritime features in the South China Sea.
Based on the reports available at the time of this writing, the U.S. Navy has not specified the exact location or duration of the Lassen‘s passage. A U.S. defense official confirmed to the Wall Street Journal, however, that the destroyer had “navigated through the waters around at least one of the land masses to which China lays claim within the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea.” As I noted earlier, a U.S. official had told Reuters that the only two possible features where the Lassen could have carried out an operation are Subi and Mischief Reefs–two features that are “low-tide elevations” under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Per UNCLOS, these features are entitled to no special consideration for a maritime exclusion zone outside of a 500 meter navigational safety zone. The Journal‘s report specifies that the Lassen did not conform to “innocent passage” standards under UNCLOS as doing so could imply de facto recognition of Chinese territorial waters, defeating the purpose of the FONOP.
Reuters notes that Chinese authorities are still working to verify whether the Lassen did indeed sail within 12 nautical miles of either Subi or Mischief Reef. However, China’s foreign minister has already commented on the FONOP. According to reports, Wang Yi noted that “If true, we advise the U.S. to think again and before acting, not act blindly or make trouble out of nothing.”
The foreign minister’s use of “think again” suggests that China will likely not retaliate harshly for this particular episode, but is issuing a warning for future FONOPs. Earlier, the Chinese foreign ministry had noted that China would “never allow any country” to violate its territorial waters. That China did not directly intercept or attempt to interdict the Lassen suggests that Beijing’s language is stronger than its actual resolve to act to defend the waters around its man-made islands.
Now that the United States has officially started FONOPs within 12 nautical miles of man-made features, it will follow up with additional patrols near features that have been developed and reclaimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, according to a U.S. official who spoke to Reuters ahead of the Lassen‘s patrol. “This is something that will be a regular occurrence, not a one-off event,” the official noted, adding that FONOPs will not be “unique to China.”
Editor’s Note: This is a developing story and will be closely followed by The Diplomat in the coming days.
Update: a U.S. official, speaking anonymously, has told the Associated Press that the USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef.