This Japanese admiral says that the US Navy isn't really conducting freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea:
Retired Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force(JMSDF) Rear Admiral Sumihiko Kawamura, the former vice commandant of the Joint Staff College, told The Sekai Nippo that “the Obama administration’s strategy of freedom of navigation is intended to be a gesture indicating they do not recognize the seas around the artificial islands as territorial waters, but I think this is almost entirely meaningless.
“What the U.S. is currently doing is called ‘innocent passage.’ Innocent passage refers to passage through a nation’s territorial waters by another nation’s military vessels within 12 nautical miles of the shore, taking only the minimum of action necessary and without causing any alarm or intimidation. The passage of military vessels is permitted so long as it is innocent passage. According to the statements by US Department of Defense, U.S. Navy vessels are making innocent passage. That is to say, their actions imply that they recognize the area as Chinese territorial waters, which has the opposite of the intended effect.” ...
“They must be actions that are not innocent passage, namely circumnavigating the artificial islands in military vessels, stopping, dropping anchor, and launching aircraft.
The possibility we are only conducting innocent passage has been my worry.
Yet the Japanese admiral also stated:
“That said, it is no use leaving it up to the U.S. alone. Any military response must be done jointly, with participation by Japan and other nations around the world such as Australia. What I mean to say is that China is currently explaining the military actions of the U.S. to its citizens as the US unilaterally disturbing the peace in the South China Sea, and it is using this to stir up domestic discontent. Therefore, rather than the U.S. acting alone, there must be multinational action to make the people of China understand that it is the international community as a whole which stands in opposition.”
Which brings me to the reality that we really do seem to be attracting allies to our side to resist China. That's real enough, it seems.
So I have to ask, are we holding back on conducting real freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) to press our allies to join us rather than allow them to back off and let us do it all by ourselves?
That's certainly a possibility. If our allies want us to resist China, they want us to do things that actually challenge China's territorial claims in defiance of international law.
And we naturally don't want to be the only one standing when the music stops if the Chinese react with force one day.
I just don't know if we are pretending to have a policy of rejecting Chinese claims to look like we are doing something; or if we are pretending to carry out FONOPs in order to encourage our allies to join us before we conduct true FONOPs.
I hope the latter and I fear the former.