Since President Joe Biden took office, the U.S. Navy completed its first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea on Friday, a move criticized by the Chinese military as “seriously violating the sovereignty and security of China.”
“The USS John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, “affirmed navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands,” a region in the northern South China Sea disputed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, according to a news release from the U.S. 7th Fleet.
Around the Paracel Islands, China argues straight baselines, a stance generally seen as inconsistent with international maritime law. Japan entered a rising list of countries in January that have recently sent diplomatic notes to the United Nations in order to formally dispute these statements.
Since 2015, in the South China Sea, the United States has conducted daily FONOPS. These operations are intended to be carried out in compliance with international law and show that wherever international law allows, the United States can travel, sail, and operate, irrespective of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events, the news release said.
The operation ‘upheld the rights, freedoms and legitimate uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging China, Taiwan, and Vietnam’s unconstitutional restrictions on innocent passage and also by challenging China’s claim to straight baselines surrounding the Paracel Islands,’ the news release said.
“The FONOP was criticized by a spokesman for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command, saying that the USS John S. McCain “intruded without authorization into the territorial sea of China’s Xisha [Paracels].” The spokesman accused the U.S. military of “seriously undermining regional peace and stability” and “seriously violating the sovereignty and security of China.
Virtually all of the South China Sea is claimed by China and its assertive conduct in these contested waters has been a source of friction with the U.S. FONOP on Friday was the Biden administration’s new sign that it is promoting U.S. policies that contradict the arguments of China and encourage what Washington terms a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated the stance in a call Thursday with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh. Among the Southeast Asian nations opposing China’s South China Sea claims, Vietnam is the most assertive.
Even on Friday, the U.S. USNI News announced that the Nimitz Carrier Strike Group had navigated across the Malacca Strait into the South China Sea. It is the second foray by a U.S. aircraft carrier into those waters since Biden took office last month. In January, for routine tasks including maritime strike drills and organized operational training between surface and air forces, the United States sailed the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group into the South China Sea.
A Malaysian coastguard vessel appears to have sailed up to a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship at South Luconia Shoals in the past week, around 100 nautical miles off Malaysia’s coast, in a reminder of the day-to-day tensions in the South China Sea, especially in waters where conflicting claims exist.
On Feb. 2 and returned to port on Feb. 4, the Coast Guard 3902, a Malaysian vessel, sailed up to the South Luconia Shoals from Tanjung Kidurong. The AIS data suggests that at one point on Feb. 4, the HJ5202 could have sailed within 1.5 to 2 nautical miles of the Coast Guard 3902.