What’s the point of ‘freedom of navigation’ operations?

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Donald Trump has been following in his predecessor Barack Obama’s footsteps, mounting three “freedom of navigation operations” (FNOPs) in the South China Sea since ascending to the US presidency. His third and latest saw the USS John S McCain sail within the 12-mile exclusive economic zone of an artificial island built by China on a reef in the Spratly chain, which China calls Nansha Island, on August 3.

After six hours of verbal exchanges, the McCain turned around and sailed away, raising the question: What is the purpose of the US continuing to carry out FNOPs, particularly when China is not preventing any nation from freedom of navigation?

With exports accounting for almost 19% of its gross domestic product  and most of its US$5 trillion worth of annual trade transiting through the South China Sea, freedom of navigation there is more important to it than any other country, including the US.

Putting ‘freedom of navigation’ in perspective

Before 2011, the South China Sea was relatively calm, with no mention of FNOPs. But that changed after then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced that this sea was a US “national interest” even though it is more than 10,000 kilometers from US shores. Speculations abound on why she made that announcement at that time: containing Chinese “aggression”, a plan to run for the US presidency, and others.

Obama followed up on this development with his 2012 policy to “pivot” or “rebalance” toward Asia. Once again, speculations abound as to why he did it, the most plausible explanation being to “contain” China’s rise. Indeed, he pushed the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement so that the US would write the global trade rules instead of China.

However, both Clinton and Obama conveniently ignored history. The Cairo Proclamation of 1944 demanded that Japan and the European colonial powers return all of China’s historical claims: water and land within the “Nine-Dash Line” that was drawn up by the Nationalists in 1947. The US was a signatory to the document and accepted China’s claim, thinking that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists would win the civil war.

However, the Communist victory prompted the US to make a policy U-turn, reneging on China’s claims not only on the South China Sea but also in the East China Sea. Instead of returning the Senkaku or Diaoyu Islands to China as specified under the Cairo Declaration, the US turned them over to Japan in 1972.

Beijing recognizes the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, but it wants them to be settled between the stakeholders themselves and not by “outside meddlers” (that is, the US). As indicated earlier, China never blocks any nation from sailing the South China Sea, but only objects to deliberate US provocations, as Washington tells the world that it will challenge the Chinese “bullies” by sailing wherever “international law allows”.

But FNOPs are really a US invention, because the issue never existed until after the Obama administration developed its policy on the South China Sea, prompting China to become more assertive in its territorial claims, and building islands within the Nine-Dash Line.

Not backing off, the US and two of its staunchest allies, Australia and Japan, brand China as the aggressor, vowing to increase the number of FNOPs. Since neither side is about to step back any time soon, FNOPs could culminate in armed skirmishes between the antagonists.

Ironically, Australia and Japan treating China as the enemy hurts all three nations’ economic interests, the Communist country being their largest trade partner. The US and Chinese economies are already joined at the hip, prompting a Harvard historian to coin the term “Chimerica”. What’s more, the US needs China’s cooperation to defuse many of the world’s issues, the most important being the Korean nuclear issue.

US treats China as both partner and competitor 

China’s phenomenal economic growth allows it to challenge US economic and geopolitical dominance. Being the biggest trading partner to around 120 nations, including the US, gives China significant economic influence. China’s huge investment in and trade with Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia may in fact give it greater sway than the US in these regions.

For example, traditional close US allies such as the UK have openly defied US pressure not to join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Many countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, are looking to China rather than the US to help them spur economic growth.

On geopolitics, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has concluded an agreement on a code of conduct in the South China Sea to resolve territorial disputes. This will pave the way for bilateral negotiations to address territorial disputes rather than resorting to the military adventurism favored by the US.

Losing influence to China irks some American politicians, particularly those harboring neoconservative views. Indeed, China’s rise played an important role in the neocons’ Project for a New American Century, calling for military action against any country that challenges US global hegemony.

Hawks such as US Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham are calling on Trump to dislodge North Korea from its nuclear weapons, willing to sacrifice millions of South Korean lives in the process. For example, Graham reportedly said on a US television talk show that a war with North Korea would only kill people on the other side, not in the US. He might have suffered a memory lapse, forgetting that thousands of American civilian and military personnel and dependents also live and work in Asia.

As if North Korea’s nuclear-weapons development were not enough, the US Congress overwhelmingly voted in favor of new sanctions against Russia and deploying additional military assets and personnel along its border. Trump is considering military action against Venezuela in the name of democracy. Boasting that the US military is the strongest it has ever been, Trump may be sending the message that nations should not challenge US hegemony.

Given all the problems in which the US is embroiled or has initiated around the world, one would think that picking a fight with China is the last thing it needs. Although the US military might be the strongest it has ever been since Trump took office, that of China (and America’s other adversaries) is also getting bigger and stronger.

So what’s the purpose of US FNOPs?

It is quite clear that neither the US nor China is about to fall into the Thucydides Trap, positing that an existing power would mount a military conflict against a rising one or vice versa. Both sides are well aware that war could lead to mutual assured destruction and, in the case of the US and China, mutual economic destruction.

So why is the US continuing to mount FNOPs in the South China Sea, knowing that freedom of navigation was never an issue? There is speculation that some in the US (neoconservatives or believers in “American exceptionalism”) are determined to maintain global hegemony.

Moreover, many of these people are associated with the military-industrial complex. Having a formidable foe like China could guarantee perpetual wealth for their “employers”. FNOPs will prompt China to increase its military budget, and the US will likely respond in kind. This vicious cycle of militarization will continue, leaving economic and social programs in both countries underfunded and making the world increasingly dangerous.

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