The Pentagon is stepping up so-called “Freedom of Navigation Operations” — FONOPs — in the South China Sea as a means of meeting and deterring Chinese aggression and expansionism.
The Navy has already carried out two FONOPs this year and officials say more are planned, the South China Morning Post reported.
However, observers say that the increase in U.S. Navy operations isn’t liable to influence Chinese decision-making in the region or deter Beijing from continuing to make outsized claims in the South China Sea.
In January, the USS McCampbell sailed near the Paracel Islands. On February 11, the USS Spruance and the USS Preble sailed near Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands, both missions of which triggered predictable angry responses from China.
The U.S. Navy carried out five FONOPs last year and four in 2017, the SCMP noted.
Adm. Phil Davidson, head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, suggested last week during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that FONOPs in the South China Sea would be increased in the coming months.
He also said Britain’s naval activity would also increase in the South China Sea along with the activity of other U.S. allies.
China, thus far, is undeterred. In recent months Beijing has dispatched its own warships to the region in an effort to confront U.S. Navy ships. One such confrontation nearly led to a collision between U.S. and Chinese warships.
Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the U.S. would have to resort to other strategies than simply using FONOPs to deter Beijing.
“While freedom of navigation operations may be one of the ways the US expresses its security commitment to the governments, they will have a negligible effect on Beijing’s continued strategic and economic forays – especially via the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ – throughout the Indo-Pacific region,” he told the paper.
Indeed, he added, “Beijing may likely use the intensified foreign military presence, including joint FONOPs, as a justification for these build-ups.”
Yue Gang, a retired People’s Liberation Army colonel, told the SCMP that neither the U.S. nor China wants to go to war over the South China Sea.
“If the US sent a large number of warships, then China would do the same in order to maintain a balance, so that would increase the risk of confrontation,” he said.
“But China doesn’t want a military conflict in the South China Sea, and the claim America is willing to stage a war against China is an overstatement.”