US President George W. Bush once claimed to be ‘misunderestimated’—a term of art that left journalists perplexed but, in retrospect, was perhaps best defined as ‘underestimating by mistake’. In similar vein, I think a number of people in Australia currently misoverestimate what freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPs) can achieve in the South China Sea. Those people believe—wrongly—that FONOPs can be an effective vehicle for opposing China’s territorial claims, upholding the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and reversing China’s growing strategic presence in the region. I don’t claim any great expertise in South China Sea matters. But I do think that a better understanding of FONOPs might make for a more measured and thoughtful debate about their utility.
Media headlines are one part of the problem. The ABC, for example, reported the latest US FONOP under the headline ‘South China Sea: US warship challenges Beijing’s territorial claims with freedom of navigation exercise’. That’s misleading. FONOPs are an assertion of maritime rights. They aren’t statements about sovereignty claims—even though China sometimes sees them as such. Further confusion between FONOPs and strategic assertiveness appeared in the Wall Street Journal recently where an article reflecting on Australia’s unwillingness to conduct FONOPs in the South China Sea appeared under the headline ‘Australia cedes the seas’. With all due respect to the author of that article, Australia has never had a formalised FONOP program similar to America’s, but nor have most other countries. That doesn’t mean we ‘cede the seas’.
Let’s start by looking at US FONOPs. Washington has run FONOPs—for decades—against a wide range of countries. Those countries include US allies like Denmark, Japan, Thailand and the Philippines, as well as the more usual suspects. FONOPs have been conducted against all South China Sea claimant states, and against Indonesia, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and a host of others. (Anyone who wants to have a look at the range of those activities should scan the reports provided by the US Department of Defence about the operations it’s conducted since 1991.)
Those operations target excessive maritime claims, such as a requirement for prior notification before entering territorial waters, or for authorisation for foreign military manoeuvres within an Exclusive Economic Zone. They’re not a mechanism for contesting territorial sovereignty. I’d invite readers to peruse the full statement of the US Department of Defense in relation to the FONOP past Triton Island conducted in January this year by the USS Curtis Wilbur:
‘This operation challenged attempts by the three claimants, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, to restrict navigation rights and freedoms around the features they claim by policies that require prior permission or notification of transit within territorial seas….The operation was…not about territorial claims to land features. The United States takes no position on competing sovereignty claims between the parties to naturally-formed land features in the South China Sea.’
Just as a FONOP isn’t a vehicle for contesting sovereignty, it also isn’t much of a vehicle for signalling strategic displeasure—unless, of course, the country conducting the FONOP intends it to be one. Australia’s problem is that some who believe we should be conducting a FONOP in the South China Sea do intend it to be such a signal. They want Australia to conduct a FONOP specifically against China—even though the Australian Navy has never sailed within 12 nautical miles of any contested feature in the South China Sea—for the particular purpose of countering Beijing’s growing power and regional assertiveness. Such an operation would be highly provocative. China could not but interpret it as a deliberate challenge to its strategic interests, as indeed it would be—much more so than any US FONOP is. Moreover, I think the Australian action would be largely ineffective. It would have no discernible effect in reversing China’s growing strategic weight in the South China Sea.
True, Australia does have an easier option open to it—to take FONOPs at face value, and so to accompany the US on an operation in the South China Sea, the central purpose of which would be to strengthen the rules-based maritime order by opposing excessive maritime claims by the different claimant states. It might also choose to conduct such an operation by itself or in good company. The objective of any such operation would be actual freedom of navigation, with the signalling of strategic displeasure a mere by-product. It would also mean conducting operations against a range of countries and not merely one. So, yes, we could head down that track. Do we want to? In one sense, it’s interesting we’re having a debate at all about something as esoteric as FONOPs. A worrying thought is that the debate’s a signal of just how constrained our policy options are in the South China Sea.