Flashpoints | Security | Southeast Asia

US Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation Near China-Held Features in Spratlys

The operation comes shortly after the unveiling of a new South China Sea position by the U.S. government.

Ankit Panda
US Conducts Freedom of Navigation Operation Near China-Held Features in Spratlys
Credit: U.S. Pacific Fleet via Twitter

On Tuesday, a U.S. Navy warship conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near Chinese-held features in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The operation was the first publicly reported FONOP since May 28.

USS Ralph Johnson, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Cuarteron Reef and Fiery Cross Reef — the sites of two Chinese artificial islands — in the South China Sea. The operation coincided with the release of an updated position by the U.S. government on the South China Sea.

“#USSRalphJohnson steams near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea on Tuesday in the midst of a deployment to the region conducting #USNavy maritime security operations for a #FreeandOpenIndoPacific,” the U.S. Pacific Fleet noted on its Twitter account.

The operation coincided with the announcement of a new position by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific David Stillwell at a virtual event hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In his remarks, Stillwell spoke of China’s “campaign to impose an order of ‘might makes right’ in the South China Sea,” and said “Beijing is working to undermine the sovereign rights of other coastal states and deny them access to offshore resources.”

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His speech mostly expanded on an announcement Monday by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that the United States’ position on the South China Sea was going to be more aligned with the findings of an international tribunal in 2016 in the Philippines’ 2013 case against China.

On Tuesday, Stillwell said “the United States rejects any PRC claim to waters beyond a 12 nautical mile territorial sea derived from islands it claims in the Spratly Islands.”

“This means that the United States rejects any PRC maritime claim in the waters surrounding Vanguard Bank (off Vietnam), Luconia Shoals (off Malaysia), Natuna Besar (off Indonesia), or in the waters of Brunei’s EEZ,” he added.

The United States began conducted freedom of navigation operations within 12 nautical miles of Chinese features in the South China Sea in October 2015 under the Obama administration.

The Trump administration continued the practice of using FONOPs to protest excessive maritime claims by littoral states, but increased the frequency of such operations. The U.S. regularly conducts these operations in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands.

U.S. FONOPs are conducted near features held by China and other South China Sea claimant states.