How Close Was the Latest Close Call in the South China Sea? A ChinaFile Conversation

Julian G. Ku, Feng Zhang, Zha Daojiong, Graham Webster, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri / February 2, 2016 / ChinaFile

China claims the sailing of a U.S. Navy warship on Saturday into what it calls its territory was needless provocation and an attempt at causing trouble amongst China’s neighbors. What precedent is there for these close calls in disputed maritime territories to escalate? How close was this close call? Had things in fact calmed down in recent weeks as the Chinese official press claimed, only to be stirred up again needlessly by this Freedom of Navigation sail? What’s at stake, in real terms: Numbers of shipping containers? Potential energy assets? The U.S.-China status quo? Lives? —The Editors


Hofstra University in New York

…by limiting its transit to “innocent passage,” the U.S. is actually giving a great deal  of respect to Chinese territorial claims (perhaps more than they actually deserve).”- Julian G. Ku



Australian National University

“The U.S. should seize the current window of opportunity offered by Chinese restraint and start a serious strategic dialogue with China over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Further muscle-flexing may have tragic consequences.” – Feng Zhang


Peking University

“Does the contest escalate tension in the South China Sea? It is a matter of perspective. When both the U.S. and Chinese navies observe the routine, the exchange does not amount to anything more than what we have already witnessed. The true test can and will arise if either party takes a step further.” –  Zha Daojiong


Yale Law School

“Unless significant details have yet to emerge, this U.S. “freedom of navigation” (FON) operation was not a close call when it comes to war and peace, or even a minor crisis.” – Graham Webster


“One simple reason is that India knows that when it comes to tangible power, the

Hindustan Times

areas east of the Malacca Straits are well beyond its abilities. “We will defend the South China Sea to the last Filipino or Vietnamese,” is how some officials half-seriously describe the policy.” – Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

China has criticized the recent U.S. Navy operation sailing within what it considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea as needlessly provocative. In China’s view, the U.S. Navy has purposely inflamed tensions in the region in order to stir up opposition to China. While it is true that tensions have risen, and probably will continue to increase, in the South China Sea region over the past few years, the “freedom of navigation” operations (FONOPs) that the U.S. has conducted cannot fairly be blamed for either creating or increasing these tensions. Why?

First, it is important to keep in mind that the FONOPs like the one China recently protested are part of a U.S. Navy policy that has been carried out all around the world since at least 1979. China is hardly the only country that has been the target of these operations. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, in 2014 the U.S. conducted similar FONOPs challenging excessive maritime claims by countries as diverse as Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Nicaragua, Oman, Peru, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Venezuela, and Vietnam. During that same year, the U.S. also conducted numerous FONOPs targeting excessive Chinese maritime claims along China’s mainland coast. But China’s Foreign Ministry did not condemn those FONOPs with the same heated language it is using today. Nor did Chinese state media attack those earlier U.S. actions as “provocative.” It is China, and not the U.S., that has transformed these relatively routine operations into a source of bilateral and regional tension. Read more…


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