The United States canceled a scheduled maritime freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea, a government source told the Wall Street Journal. According to a report published in the Journal Tuesday evening, in a bid to “lower the temperature” in the South China Sea while still demonstrating resolve to China over possibly intensifying activities near Scarborough Shoal, the United States chose not to hold a freedom of navigation operation this month and instead carried out air patrols near Scarborough Shoal. As I discussed earlier this month, the reported freedom of navigation operation in April would have been the third since the United States began challenging excessive maritime claims in the Spratly and Paracel Islands. One operation was held in October 2015, in the Spratly Islands, and another in January 2016, in the Paracels.
The circumstances surrounding the cancellation of the operation aren’t fully known, but it is likely that the United States wanted to manage the diplomatic fallout with China in the South China Sea. Instead of another FONOP, which would have drawn a negative reaction from the Chinese foreign ministry, as previous operations in the South China Sea have, the Obama administration chose to signal its support for the Philippines. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was in the Philippines earlier this month. As my colleague Prashanth Parameswaran discussed in some detail, among other things, Carter’s visit was the first high-level U.S. official visit to the country–a U.S. ally–since the activation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which will allow U.S. forces rotational access to Philippines bases. Additionally, Carter became the first defense secretary to observe the bilateral U.S.-Philippine Balikatan exercises.
The other bit of context here is the growing concern in the United States that China could begin land reclamation activities at Scarborough Shoal in earnest soon. Scarborough Shoal was famously seized by China in 2012, after a highly publicized stand-off with the Philippines, which previously administered the waters around the feature. (See a more detailed discussion of the history and circumstances of possible Scaraborough Shoal reclamation in my post earlier this week.) With the cancellation of the FONOP, Washington diverted its energies toward “three different air patrols near Scarborough in recent days,” according to the Journal‘s report. U.S. A-10 Thunderbolt fighters and HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters were deployed from Clark Air Force base in the Philippines. The U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation program includes airspace assertions.
The cancellation of a scheduled freedom of navigation operation undermines earlier pledges by senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, that the patrols would become a regular occurrence in the South China Sea. The move also suggests that tensions between the Pentagon and the White House continue to persist over just how much of a cost the United States is willing to bear in the South China Sea with regard to its broader bilateral relationship with China. No doubt, the Scarborough Shoal overflights shortly after the Balikatan exercise with the Philippines had a desirable effect for the United States: They showed Washington’s resolve to Manila. (The two allies recently revealed the commencement of joint patrols in the South China Sea.)
A reaction from the Chinese foreign ministry earlier this week to the flights near Scarborough Shoal was surprisingly muted. Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry, noted that “It is nothing strange for relevant planes to fly outside airspace adjacent to Huangyan Dao,” using the Chinese name for Scarborough Shoal. “Yet there is something unnatural with the high-profile hyping up of such a flight, and the reason why they did this is questionable,” she added. The Chinese foreign ministry hasn’t issued any further statements as of this writing; Hua’s reaction to the Scarborough fly-overs can be juxtaposed with the reactions from Beijing to the October 2015 and January 2016 FONOPs.
The Chinese defense ministry’s statement was more forthright, using language similar to what we’d seen in the aftermath of FONOPs in the Spratlys and Paracels. “The Huangyan island is China’s inherent territory and the Chinese military will take all necessary measures to safeguard national sovereignty and security,” it said. The ministry added that China opposes “such actions by the U.S. which threaten sovereignty and security of countries around the South China Sea and undermine regional peace and stability.” Echoing what has become a refrain in recent Chinese statements on U.S. activities in the South China Sea, the defense ministry said “the U.S. is promoting militarization of the South China Sea in the name of ‘Freedom of Navigation.'”
From Washington’s perspective, cancelling the FONOP might not have been all that bad. After all, the post-Balikatan air patrols near Scarborough have a similar signaling effect toward China, all while reassuring the Philippines, an important U.S. ally. Moreover, China’s response to the Scarborough fly-overs suggests that Beijing is treating them as it would a FONOP. The defense ministry’s statement, in particular, uses language seen previously in the aftermath of both the October 2015 and January 2016 FONOPs. For an administration that’s highly sensitive to expending too much bilateral diplomatic capital too quickly in the South China Sea, focusing on Scarborough may have been a more appealing option given the circumstances.
I do worry, however, that Washington’s cancellation of a scheduled FONOP may be more deleterious in the long run than the Obama administration may think. The administration has claimed–correctly–that the U.S. Navy’s freedom of navigation program is a fairly mundane, regular, and universal activity. It isn’t something directed at China; indeed, previous FONOPs have protested excessive claims by other South China Sea claimants as well. Calling off an operation undermines this narrative and imbues FONOPs with a special sort of signaling value.
Finally, there is the possibility that the recent tensions around Scarborough and reports that China is surveying the area for land reclamation are a red herring of sorts. China has good reasons not to conduct land reclamation there. With the pending ruling in Philippines v. China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration expected this June, Beijing is already set to suffer some reputational costs. Even though China has said it doesn’t recognize the Court’s jurisdiction, it would have little incentive to magnify its reputational damage with new reclamation activities at Scarborough Shoal. Additionally, as I discussed in my article earlier this week, an artificial island at Scarborough, unlike the seven artificial islands China has constructed in the Spratly Islands, would be built on a feature acquired coercively from another claimant. China has held its Spratly features since the 1980s.