A U.S. Naval Signal in the South China Sea

A U.S. destroyer’s recent operation demonstrates how the United States is protecting its interests in the South China Sea, says Capt. Sean Liedman, CFR’s Navy fellow.

October 28, 2015

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Recent U.S. naval maneuvers in the South China Sea signal how the United States plans to safeguard its interests in the Asia-Pacific region, says Capt. Sean Liedman, CFR’s Navy fellow and an expert in maritime strategy. Freedom-of-navigation operations conducted by U.S. warships, like the USS Lassen, are intended to push back against excessive maritime claims by states like China, and help ensure the free flow of global commerce through the region. At the same time, these operations serve as an assurance for U.S. allies “to enhance stability and security in the region,” Liedman says in a written interview.

Navy-China-Sea A Sea Hawk helicopter prepares to land aboard an aircraft carrier as a guided-missile destroyer undergoes a training exercise. (Andre T. Richard/Courtesy U.S. Navy)

What are the U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region?

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The United States has three strategic objectives for the Asia-Pacific Region: One, enhance stability and security; two, facilitate trade and commerce through an open and transparent system; and three, ensure respect for universal rights and freedoms. Additionally, the United States has security alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines, and is attempting to strengthen those.

What are the U.S. objectives with this type of operation in the South China Sea?

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The military objectives of this freedom-of-navigation operation can be tied to each of the three previously mentioned strategic objectives. While the United States has declared in numerous public fora that it is not a party to any of the disputed sovereignty claims in the Asia-Pacific region, two of its treaty allies—Japan and the Phillipines—are parties to disputed maritime claims with China. Conducting this operation is a clear signal aimed at assuring U.S. allies to enhance stability and security in the region.

Regarding the free flow of commerce, it has been estimated that as much of 50 percent of all global oil tanker shipments pass through the South China Sea, and more than half of the world’s top ten shipping ports are located in and around the South China Sea, so freedom of navigation is of paramount importance for all states in the region.

Finally, these operations are designed to counter excessive maritime claims that violate customary international law as reflected in the United Nations Convention On The Law of the Sea (PDF) (UNCLOS), which the United States considers to part of the body of fundamental rights of the international community.

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InfoGuide: China’s Maritime Disputes

How often does the Navy conduct these types of patrols?

Their frequency has varied over history. The Department of Defense’s Freedom of Navigation Program (PDF) and DoD publishes an annual report (PDF) of them. A quick review of the data indicates a high of twenty-eight in 1998 compared to as few as twelve in other years.

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What are the military requirements for this type of operation?

It is important to note that the Freedom of Navigation Program is not solely a military activity; it also consists of consultations and representations by U.S. diplomats. Freedom of navigation operations can be conducted along a spectrum of naval force ranging from a Carrier Strike Group, to a single ship, to a single maritime patrol aircraft, or combinations thereof. This operation in the South China sea was reportedly conducted by a single guided missile destroyer, the USS Lassen, with a P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft providing overwatch.

Does this signal any change in U.S. policy?

No. Freedom of navigation on the high seas has been a vital national interest since the founding of the country. The Defense Department’s Freedom of Navigation Program formally began in 1979 and was furthered clarified by the U.S. Oceans Policy (PDF) in 1983.

It is important to note that the United States has conducted these operations against allied nations such as Japan and the Phillipines and partner nations such as Saudi Arabia to stand by the principal of not acquiescing to excessive maritime claims.

Are there risks involved?

There is some risk of strategic miscalculation, and also some risk of a tactical mishap that could have strategic implications. Regarding the strategic miscalculation, the United States has telegraphed this operation for some period of time to avoid surprising China. On the tactical side of the equation, military operations in areas of constrained geography increase the likelihood of an inadvertent collision, but the assumed professionalism of Chinese and U.S. naval forces coupled with an assumption of mutual adherence to the recently agreed upon Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea should reduce risk.

Will China respond in kind?

The United States and regional allies will have to wait and see how China responds. Early reporting indicates that the U.S. ambassador to China was summoned to meet with the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Zhang Yesui, who branded the move “extremely irresponsible.”

In one respect, China already responded in kind in September, when it sailed five ships from the People’s Liberation Army Navy within the twelve-nautical-mile territorial waters of the U.S. Aleutian Islands under the “innocent passage” regime provided for in UNCLOS. After that incident, the Pentagon responded by saying, “This was a legal transit of U.S. territorial seas conducted in accordance with the Law of the Sea Convention,” which affirms U.S. commitment to the customary international law outlined in UNCLOS.

It is important to highlight that this U.S. freedom-of-navigation operation was not conducted under the innocent passage or transit passage regimes of UNCLOS; rather, it targeted excessive maritime claims such as the validity of territorial sea claims associated with recently reclaimed “islands” in the South China Sea that were formerly defined as “low-tide elevation” features, which do not have associated territorial waters per UNCLOS. In a broader sense, this operation challenged China’s “nine-dashed line” claim in the South China Sea, which clearly exceeds any definition of territorial seas as defined in customary international law.

Captain Sean R. Liedman, U.S. Navy, was the commander of Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Eleven operating the P-8A and P-3C maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft. He has twice served in the Air Warfare Division on the Chief of Naval Operation’s staff and also as the executive assistant to the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

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