Full Frontal FONOPS
The Trump administration seems willing to clear away the detritus of an outmoded One China policy--while at the same time deterring Beijing from pursuing a dangerous new expansionist One China concept.
The first One China was the mythical unification of the People’s Republic of China, and the Republic of Taiwan envisioned by President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao Zedong in the 1972 Shanghai Communique.
But even before Taiwan had completed its move from dictatorship to democracy, Nixon recognized in his 1994 memoir that the One China pretense was no longer a realistic prospect: “They are permanently separated politically.”
Still, many found it unthinkable that President-elect Trump would accept simple telephone congratulations from Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen. Even worse from their perspective, he said he did not feel bound by a 45-year-old bilateral formulation which means different things to Washington and Beijing, let alone to successive administrations in Taipei.
Beijing’s other threatening One China notion goes far beyond the 100 mile-wide Taiwan Strait. Now Chinese leaders claim as part of China virtually the entire South China Sea - 1.4 million square miles of ocean expanse and a myriad of strategically-located islands, rocks, reefs, and maritime outcroppings.
While several countries have occasionally acted unilaterally to assert claims, none has been as sweeping in its territorial reach, including blatantly illegal claims, as China - nor as aggressive and systematic in pursuing them.
The United States has scrupulously avoided taking a position on any of the respective claims, even when China’s actions have clearly violated the sovereignty of an American treaty ally like the Philippines.
Instead, Washington has asserted a vital national interest in keeping the region’s critical sea lanes and airspace open to the world’s commerce, as the U.S. Navy has done since World War II. No country has benefitted more from that free flow of trade than China, whose economy has flourished under American protection of navigational and overflight freedoms.
However, to the disappointment of every president since Nixon’s “opening China to the world and opening the world to China,” Beijing has neither moderated its harsh system of governance nor, more ominously, lessened its suspicion and hostility toward the West.
With its ideology discredited, the Chinese Communist Party ensures that “the century of humiliation” is never forgotten and constantly stokes anti-American and anti-Japan nationalism as one of its two pillars of regime legitimacy. The other pillar is the very prosperity enabled by Western policies of trade, technical assistance, and investment.
To make the irony a bitter one, China has used a disproportionate share of that new wealth to build a powerful military targeting Western assets and interests in the region and beyond. Lenin’s maxim of the West supplying its own hanging rope has been borne out in the engagement experience with China.
China’s increasingly aggressive actions against the commercial vessels of other nations, its construction and militarization of manmade islands, and its preemptive harassment of U.S. Navy ships and planes, finally alerted the last two U.S. administrations to the threat from a risen, and decidedly non-peaceful, China.
As regional concerns over Chinese actions mounted, Congress pressed for the Navy to conduct Freedom of Navigation Operations to challenge China and protect ocean and airspace freedoms. From October 2015 to October 2016, the administration authorized four such FONOPS but sent confusing messages as to what they were meant to accomplish.
The first three transits by Navy ships passed within 12 nautical miles of manmade islands which China claims in violation of the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention. UNCLOS treats the surrounding waters as part of the high seas where the vessels of all nations, including warships, can conduct normal commercial and peaceful military operations.
In all three cases, however, the Navy ships curtailed their normal operations. They turned off their fire control radar, performed no practice maneuvers, and conducted no routine exercises. Those are all restraints that UNCLOS imposes on warships in innocent passage through a state’s legally recognized coastal waters.—such as the Chinese warships that moved through U.S. waters off Alaska’s coast last year or a hypothetical U.S. Navy transit within 12 miles of the Chinese coast.
But these three U.S. operations were supposed to be challenging, not conceding, that the seas they transited are Chinese territorial waters. The operations seemed to undermine the repeated statements of President Obama, Defense Secretary Carter, and Secretary of State Kerry that the U.S. Navy “will fly, sail and operate anywhere in the world that international law allows.” In these cases, the Navy did not operate as international law allows.
Each innocent passage by the U.S. Navy cedes more of the South China Sea to China's maritime domain and shrinks the high seas available to free, open, and normal operations. It may be innocent passage, but it is not intelligent policy.
Last October, the Obama administration authorized the Navy to conduct one last operation, perhaps the most curious of the four. The USS Decatur steamed through high seas near islands China claims in the Paracels without actually transiting within 12 nautical miles of the islands. So, in that case, it was not even claiming innocent passage, but it is not clear whether the ship was in normal operating mode.
The administration said the challenge was not to the 12-mile territorial sea claims around the individual islands, but to China’s excessive straight baseline claim around the entire island grouping. However, the specifics are still not clear.
There was one minor aspect in which the four operations did defy China, and other claimant states, no advance notice of the transits was given as Beijing demands contrary to international law. However, China would surely grant Washington many more such Pyrrhic victories by which the Navy fails to ask permission before conceding China’s territorial claims.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said last March that China also believes in protecting freedom of navigation, but it does not include “the freedom to run amok." Washington and Beijing obviously have a perception problem regarding the meaning of international law.
As Secretary Tillerson told the Senate at his hearing, the dynamic in the South China Sea must change. The Trump Administration needs to conduct some full frontal FONOPS to reverse the damage done to freedom of navigation over the past few years. It could start by retracing the paths of the four operations authorized by the previous administration, but this time doing them right.
That sort of assertive U.S. corrective to FONOPS under the Obama administration would not be inconsistent with the weekend statement of Defense Secretary James Mattis on his Asia trip: “At this time we do not see any need for dramatic military moves.”
FONOPS are, by definition, routine maritime operations; responsible Chinese behavior would ensure there would be no need for subsequent military moves.