Friday, November 06, 2015

A Phony FONOP?

Was our recent freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea actually an "innocent passage" that does not in fact deny China's territorial claims?

Oh, good grief:

USNI News, Defense News and Graham Webster all recently noted that the USS Lassen was undertaking innocent passage when it sailed past Subi Reef on 27 October. This surprising revelation has not been officially confirmed but is understood to have been widely corroborated by sources in the US Navy, Department of Defence and Capitol Hill.

It matters because the regime of innocent passage under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is specific to a country’s 12-nautical mile (nm) territorial sea. This allows warships to enter without notice but under constrained conditions, including that passage should be continuous and expeditious, with no use of on-board weapons, aircraft or 'any act aimed at interfering with any systems of communication or any other facilities or installations of the coastal State'.

It was widely assumed that Subi Reef, as a low tide elevation now extensively built upon by China, was chosen deliberately as the location for the US Navy’s FONOP in order to demonstrate on clear legal grounds that the US does not recognise Beijing’s (or rival claimants’) jurisdiction over the surrounding waters. It is integral to the demonstration value of FONOPs against excessive claims that warships carry out 'the normal range of activities which they would on the high seas, including manoeuvring, the use of active and passive sensors and even the operation of shipborne helicopters'. FONOPs and innocent passage are quite different things.

So did we carry out a freedom of navigation operation that denied Chinese claims to the waters around Subi Reef or did we conduct innocent passage that concedes Chinese control of the waters around Subi Reef?

And is this administration fine with just the American people thinking we stood up for freedom of navigation while China knows better?

Perhaps the reason the ASEAN defense ministers failed to offer a common statement in favor of freedom of navigation is because they know that it was a phony mission we carried out. Why would they be led from behind with a powerful China looming over them?

When will I learn to wait for the initial hype to fade before complimenting this administration?

UPDATE: Here's a USNI News article on the difference between innocent passage and a FONOP. Which did we conduct? Which one does China think we conducted? What do are allies think we did?

UPDATE: Senator McCain wants to know what exactly we did, too.