Flashpoints | Security | Southeast Asia

South China Sea: US Littoral Combat Ship Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation

The FONOP marked the first known operation in the area so far in 2020.

Ankit Panda
South China Sea: US Littoral Combat Ship Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation
Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Chris Roys/Released

On January 25, a U.S. Navy warship carried out a freedom of navigation operation near a feature occupied by China in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The operation marked the first known U.S. Navy freedom of navigation operation, or FONOP, in the South China Sea in 2020.

The operation was carried out by USS Montgomery, an Independence-class littoral combat ship. “On Jan. 25, a U.S. warship asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law,” a spokesperson for the U.S. 7th Fleet said in a statement. The latest FONOP challenged “challenged the restrictions on innocent passage,” the statement said.

U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea have commonly challenged Chinese restrictions on innocent passage. The Montgomery’s operation challenges restrictions near Fiery Cross Reef, a feature in the Spratly Islands that China converted into a large artificial island, featuring an airstrip. On Tuesday, Chinese military authorities noted that they had “expelled a U.S. warship” from waters in the South China Sea, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported.

According to a U.S. 7th Fleet spokesperson, the operation also sought to challenge excessive maritime claims made around Fiery Cross Reef by Vietnam and Taiwan — two other claimants. Hanoi and Taipei require prior notification before an “innocent passage” transit.

“By engaging in innocent passage without giving notification or asking for permission, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Vietnam, and Taiwan,” the spokesperson said. “The United States demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions.”

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For what appears to be the first time, the U.S. Department of Defense released five photographs of what it called “routine operations” by USS Montgomery near Fiery Cross Reef to the public. Previously, the Pentagon has not explicitly publicized these operations; the U.S. Navy publishes an annual report on freedom of navigation operations that summarizes the types of operations and the countries targeted.

Montgomery is on a rotational deployment to USINDOPACOM, conducting operations, exercises and port visits throughout the region and working hull-to-hull with allied and partner navies to provide maritime security and stability, key pillars of a free and open Indo-Pacific,” one of the image captions noted.

Freedom of navigation operations target excessive maritime claims by all countries, including many U.S. partners and allies. The Trump administration has increased the tempo of freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea near China-occupied features. In particular, several operations have taken place near China’s seven artificial island bases in the Spratlys.

In 2019, the U.S. Navy conducted at least eight FONOPs that were publicly reported. Not all such operations have been reported.