CSIS: AMTI Brief – November 2, 2015

A Freedom of Navigation Primer for the Spratly Islands

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Lassen passed through the Spratly Islands on October 26 in the first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the area since 2012. The operation included sailing within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, a feature that was previously submerged at high-tide and on which China constructed an artificial island over the last two years. The Lassen was asserting that, as a low-tide elevation and not a legal rock or island, Subi Reef is not entitled to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea. The ship also passed within 12 nautical miles of features occupied by the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Lassen’s patrol through the Spratlys has suddenly pushed the little-known U.S. FON program into the spotlight. And U.S. officials have made clear that the recent operation was just the first of many in the disputed island chain. So what is a FONOP? Read on…



Featured Analysis

The U.S. Asserts Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea

by Michael Green, Bonnie Glaser, and Gregory Poling

FON operations are intended to challenge maritime claims that the United States considers excessive under international law. The U.S. military has been conducting these operations regularly all over the world since 1979; in 2014 U.S. forces used FON operations to contest claims made by most of the South China Sea claimants, including China. However, the United States has not conducted FON operations inside 12 nautical miles of any feature in the South China Sea since 2012, according to Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear. This particular operation was intended to assert that the United States does not recognize a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea or any other maritime entitlements generated by reefs that were originally submerged but on which China has built artificial islands. It was not meant to challenge China’s claim to Subi Reef itself. Read on…



How Will China Respond to Future U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations?

by Timothy Heath

On October 27, the USS Lassen carried out the first freedom of navigation (FON) patrol to challenge China’s territorial claims over the 12-nautical-mile region surrounding its artificial islands in the South China Sea. Chinese authorities responded angrily but cautiously, publicly condemning the act and sending two naval ships to trail the Lassen, but stopping short of actions that might interfere with the operation. U.S. authorities have affirmed that future FON operations will follow, while Chinese authorities have pledged to “resolutely respond” to “future provocations.” Read on…



How the U.S. FON Program is Lawful and Legitimate

by Jonathan G. Odom

The U.S. Freedom of Navigation (FON) Program has recently drawn significant attention in the United States and abroad. An argument could be made that the program has received more attention in 2015 than in its preceding 35 years combined. This recent focus arose as the world witnessed China engage in reclamation (enhancement of naturally-formed areas of land) and “clamation” (construction of artificial islands on low-tide elevations and submerged features) in the Spratly Island group in the South China Sea – activities on an unprecedented scale and with questionable intent.  Read on…


Can Japan Join U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea?

by Tetsuo Kotani

The United States has started long overdue freedom of navigation (FON) operations in the South China Sea. Washington launched the FON program in 1979 to challenge coastal states’ excessive maritime claims through diplomatic engagement and operational assertion. During the Cold War the United States conducted FON operations in Soviet territorial seas, where Moscow did not permit innocent passage by foreign warships. It took 10 years for Washington and Moscow to reach a common understanding of innocent passage in 1989 after several incidents between their naval forces. Likewise Washington will continue the FON program in the South China Sea with strong determination for years to come until it can reach a common understanding of freedom of navigation with Beijing. Read on…


An Interview with Bonnie Glaser on FONOPS and China’s Reaction

Bonnie Glaser, director of the CSIS China Power Project, sits down with CogitAsia editor Jeffrey Bean to discuss the U.S. Navy’s recent freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea and assess China’s reaction. This interview was originally recorded for the CogitAsia Podcast. Read on…

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