The U.S. Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) in East Asia are often sold to challenge China’s aggression at sea and strengthen norms. In reality, however, they are jeopardizing the lives of the United States and national fortunes in a game of Brinks manner that holds little promise. When Chinese ships question these operations, the nature of close maneuvers and ship orders and controls can increase the risk of accidents and escalations. It’s time to take a closer look at FONOPS – and see if there aren’t any better funds available.
According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which the United States has not ratified but respects as customary international law, states can claim a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles and an “exclusive economic zone” of 200 nautical miles from their coasts. These zones allow the exercise of rights ranging from law enforcement to natural resource extraction.
According to UNCLOS, ships sailing through the territorial sea of a state enjoy the right to “innocent passage”, the freedom to travel in a non-threatening and uninterrupted manner. Warships are allowed to pass without notice, but are not allowed to engage in military activities. There are no restrictions on military activities in an exclusive economic zone.
In a FONOP, U.S. warships enter an unrecognized claim and generally perform one of two activities. You can simply travel through without notice or engage in explicit military activities like taking off planes to show that there are no innocent passage regulations in this area.
In the South China Sea, which lies between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei, the Spratly and Paracel Islands have sparked competing maritime claims. According to UNCLOS, a state can assert maritime claims around an island if it is natural, habitable and not sunk at the high water mark. Through years of heavy construction, China has reshaped several reefs and ledges to meet the last two criteria, but violated the first. China uses military facilities on these islands to regulate foreign activity in a heavily stressed economic zone within what is known as the “nine-dash line”.
Since 2015, the United States has increasingly challenged these claims, setting a record for the first time with nine FONOPS in 2019 and breaking that record again in 2020 with 13: January 25, March 10, April 28, April 29, May 28 , July 14th, August 27th, August 28th, September 11th, October 9th, November 24th, December 22nd and December 24th.
FONOPs enrag the Chinese authorities who send military ships to follow U.S. warships or to divert them off course – which poses a significant accident risk.
When assessing the risk of an accident, two principles for dealing with ships are instructive. First, a warship displacing thousands of tons and moving at high speed creates tremendous momentum. After turning the rudder, the ship will continue on its original course before the turn is complete. This is a significant hazard with another ship ahead of him. If you try to stop, it can move forward several hundred meters by reversing the drive.
Second, ships don’t spin like cars, but spin around an axis. The stern of the ship swings in the opposite direction from the curve. When accelerating (as is common with evasive maneuvers) the pivot point jumps forward and increases the momentum of the tail. There is a risk of collision if another ship tries to turn away. The venturi effect, in which water sucks in the narrow space between the ships, can make the danger worse.
A near-collision in 2018, in which a Chinese warship approached a US destroyer within 50 meters and tried to block its path, illustrated these dangers. Given the above principles, the collision could have been bow-to-jet (during the Chinese approach) or stern-to-jet (during the US destroyer’s evasive turn). A collision could therefore have entered the hull in vital areas below the waterline and damaged power distribution and communication rooms, as happened on board the USS Fitzgerald in 2017 (in an incident unrelated to FONOPs).
The features of command and control on board increase the potential for escalation of such an accident. Ship captains enjoy a high degree of autonomy, especially in emergencies. But ships are also complex and combine warfare and life support functions. In time-critical and stressful situations, officials often rely on pre-established procedures. An early miscalculation can then trigger a catastrophic chain reaction, as demonstrated by the 1988 shooting down of an Iranian civilian plane by the USS Vincennes or the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident.
A collision that interrupts the power supply, as described above, could make these “script errors” more likely. Loss of sensors such as radar would affect a crew’s situational awareness and make it difficult to determine whether ships arriving in support are actually neutral. This is especially true of the South China Sea, which is filled with state fishing vessels. Finally, deterioration in communications equipment could hamper efforts by higher authorities to de-escalate the situation.
Both the United States and China have strong incentives to prevent a collision from escalating into ongoing diplomatic tension or even military conflict. During the 2001 Hainan Island incident – a mid-air collision between US and Chinese military planes – both sides tried to give the other a dignified exit. Since this incident was resolved peacefully and was soon overshadowed by 9/11, it’s easy to forget that it took months of diplomatic time and poisoned other areas of cooperation. Peacefully resolved crises are not without costs.
Furthermore, crisis management cannot be guaranteed, even if both sides so wish. As the late economist Thomas Schelling wrote about the nuclear Brinks manner of the Cold War, escalations can arise from the very nature of the negotiations. Either side really wants to appear straightforward in their demands, but it is difficult to convince an opponent that you are willing to accept costs (such as loss of economic ties or even war) that outweigh the value of your goals.
Thus, in order to get what they want, states often argue that their “hands are tied” by an injured local public demanding action. With each side having incentives to win the negotiation process in this way, the crisis could worsen despite each state’s desire to end it. For the crisis to de-escalate, one side has to believe that the other’s hands are truly tied and back.
In this competition, China has some advantages. The Chinese Communist Party has spent decades promoting nationalism based on the narrative of opposing the humiliation of foreign states. These efforts appear to have worked: the majority of the Chinese public, especially the younger generation, hold Hawkian foreign policy views, particularly on maritime claims and the US military presence in East Asia. In addition, nationalist protests in China act as a “costly signal”. Opponents know that protests are a double-edged sword in authoritarian regimes and may see the Chinese government’s decision to allow them as a sign that it is business. On the other hand, if the other side perceives authoritarian protests as established, as Japan did during the Senkaku / Diaoyu crisis in 2012, this can further exacerbate the crisis. The US government lacks the costly signaling edge China enjoys in public protests, but in a crisis it could still point to signs that its hands are tied. There is a growing bipartisan consensus to “hold its own” against China, although it is less clear whether this goes beyond the economic realm. And the American public has expressed greater distrust of China in recent polls.
But the United States also has some drawbacks. First, the United States advocates a global norm, not its own sovereignty. As Schelling pointed out, it is more difficult to claim that one person’s “national honor” is threatened by threats to another’s territory. Second, given previous observations of China’s Hawk youth, it is worth looking at the demographic collapse in the United States as well. Younger voters – Millennials and Generation Z – have less confidence in the US military than their elders, believe in the wisdom of providing military support to allies, and view China as the greatest threat to the United States. After all, the US public’s newly discovered Sino skepticism may be triggered primarily by changes on one side of the aisle.
Proponents of FONOPs claim they are using US power to support a norm that is vital to the prosperity of the global economy and US national security. The Biden government is expected to move forward with these operations expeditiously, with the most recent being carried out on February 5th and 17th. The reality that is emerging is that while freedom of navigation is important, it is becoming more expensive to maintain by military means. As the annual number of FONOPs increases and the Chinese fleet grows, the risk of accidents increases. Basic principles of ship handling and how the ship is controlled suggest that it may only be a matter of time before the next crisis.
In addition to the loss of life and material due to accidents – because a US fleet in East Asia is already very thin, as studies in numerous accidents have shown – there are also political costs. All the ingredients are in place for a long, drawn-out crisis that, even if it ends shortly before the war, would prove extremely disruptive in US efforts to work with China in areas of great importance.
At the same time, the implicit threat behind FONOPs – that the US public will be willing to pay in lives or dollars for the norm of freedom of navigation if China should challenge it militarily – is on shaky ground. Despite the general bipartisan falsehood about China, there is ample evidence that Americans are growing weary of military obligations overseas. If the United States endures a protracted confrontation with China with little tangible gains, it could further fuel domestic appetites for other, possibly more necessary, US military activities abroad.
Rather than committing to risky and politically dubious operations, the United States should encourage its allies with larger holdings in the region to take responsibility for FONOPs, while the United States enforces the norm through issue linkages where it has more leverage . This could both increase the likelihood of compliance and reduce the risk of accidents and escalations that put a fleet with far more important responsibilities at risk.