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2019-09-19  |  BY SCSPI

Tactical Characteristics and Policy Implications of FONOPs around Paracel and Spratly Islands by USS Wayne E. Meyer and Other U.S Warships
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        On September 13th 2019, the USS Wayne E. Meyer (DDG-108) intruded into waters around the Paracel Islands(Xisha Islands) , which was again declared by the U.S 7th Fleet   as “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP in Pentagon jargon). This constitutes a sixth island or reef-intrusive FONOP by U.S naval warships in the South China Sea since 2019, and also the second time in a month that USS Wayne E. Meyer conducted such operation in South China Sea. Previously on August 28th, when Meyer conducted a FONOP around the Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef) and the Fiery Cross Reef (Yongshu Reef) of Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands), the warship was at one point within 12 nautical miles from the reefs.
        The USS Wayne E. Meyer belongs to the U.S 3rd Fleet. On August 9th, the warship set off from Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to West Pacific deployment. On August 17th, it arrived in the Apra Harbor in Guam, and left for military patrols in the Philippine Sea after a pit-stop on August 21st. On August 25th, it entered the South China Sea through the Bashi Channel, followed by FONOP in the waters around the Mischief Reef and the Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands on the 28th, and stopped at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore on the 30th. On September 4th, the warship set off from Singapore and sailed northwards along the eastern waters of the Malay Peninsula to the Gulf of Thailand, where it participated in the five-day US-ASEAN joint exercise. Following the exercise, the warship went further north through the South China Sea, and conducted FONOP around the Paracel Islands on September 13th.

Source: The activities are sorted out by SCSPI based on Automatic Identification System (AIS)

        

       Based on open source information and recent FONOPs by USS Wayne E. Meyer around the Paracel and Spratly Islands, We can see that U.S navy FONOPs have shown the following characteristics:

        1. The occasions were relatively sensitive and strongly vindictive.

        Since 2015, the US Navy has created a “tradition” of intruding into China’s islands and reefs on occasions of major Chinese festivals, such as China’s National Day and the Spring Festival, in the hope of greater political effect and influence. Additionally, FONOPs reveal an increasing tendency towards retaliation. One day after August 27th, when Pentagon officers disclosed to Reuters that China refused a recent request by U.S naval warships to visit Qingdao Port, Meyer conducted FONOPs around the Spratly Islands. Also, in early August, when two US Navy warships were denied access to Hong Kong, the USS Green Bay (LPD-20) transited through the Taiwan Strait one week later. In recent years, as Sino-US maritime strategic competition becomes increasingly intense, the US has grown so over-sensitive that it has become normal for the US Navy to conduct FONOPs in the South China Sea or sail through the Taiwan Strait in retaliation against China.

        2. Sea-air coordination and systematic operations were increasingly enhanced.

        Although the Pentagon  claimed that FONOPs were non-provocative and “the mildest action,” in practice, they remain highly vigilant and guaranteed maximum security through their capability of maritime domain awareness  and advantages of systematic operations. Before operations, they usually send P-8A anti-submarine patrol aircrafts for intelligence reconnaissance in relevant waters; during the operations, there at least maintain one P-8A or other reconnaissance aircraft up in the air to provide intelligence support and coordination with surface vessels on duty.

        So far, there have been two to three P-8A anti-submarine patrol aircrafts as part of the regular  deployment in Clark Air Base ,Philippine for reconnaissance and patrol missions in the South China Sea. Based on ADS-B information online, before and after the FONOP by USS Wayne E. Meyer on September 13th, there were at least two P-8A anti-submarine patrol aircrafts deployed in Clark Air Base, tail number 169011 and 168996 respectively. The one numbered 169011 took off from the Base on September 13th for military operations in the South China Sea, and its mission likely included Meyer’s FONOP intelligence support. The other one numbered 168996, as the only aircraft with APS-154 advanced airborne sensor deployed by the US Navy in West Pacific, was mainly used to provide overhead intelligence support.
        In addition, the commissioned Arleigh Burke class destroyers and Ticonderoga class cruisers of the US Navy are both capable of carrying SH-60 Seahawk helicopters. It has long been an operation tactic to send carrier-based helicopters in tactical operations, especially FONOPs close to the boundary line of territorial waters of other countries.

        3. Different operational patterns were applied to Spratly and Paracel Islands.

        FONOPs in the waters around Paracel Islands are normally conducted by shuttling between islands. For instance, in the operation on January 7th 2019, USS McCampbell (DDG-85) shuttled through the Tree Island(Zhaoshu Island), Lincoln Island(Dong Island), and Woody Island(Yongxing Island) of Paracel Islands , and on May 27th 2018, USS Higgins (DDG-76) and USS Antietam (CG-54) threaded between Lincoln Island, Tree Island, Woody Island, and Triton Island(Zhongjian Island) of Paracel Islands . In the waters around Spratly Islands, the US Navy normally sails a zigzag course. For instance, on May 24th 2017, USS Deway (DDG-105) entered waters within 6 nautical miles of Mischief Reef and sailed in a zigzag maneuver for nearly 90 minutes within 12 nautical miles of the Reef. Instead of exercising innocent passage, USS Deway sailed in a normal mode and even conducted a rescue drill in that process.
        Moreover, it is worth noting that compared with the Obama administration, despite increasing frequency and intensity, FONOPs under the Trump administration are apparently less strategically significant. While the White House and National Security Council undoubtedly encourage more actions by the US Navy, they seldom pay attention to the operations themselves. As a result, there has been more room for operations for authorities under the Department of Defense and Indo-Pacific Command, leading to higher risk and danger.  

        4. Operations have become increasingly frequent and normalized.

         According to statistics, the island and reef-intrusive FONOPs by the US Navy have increased in frequency year over year, with shorter time intervals. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, there were three, four, and five such operations respectively, whereas by September 13th 2019, there have been six just in 2019. While the five FONOPs by the US Navy in 2018 were basically kept at a two-month basis, the shortest interval this year was reduced to 15 days. The US Navy conducted these FONOPs alternatively around Spratly Islands, Paracel Islands, and Scarborough Reef (Huangyan Island) through close sea-air coordination and careful route selection, with a growing interest in Paracel Islands .
        In recent years, such operations by the US Navy have become more casual and intentionally normalized. Most island and reef-intrusive FONOPs are carried out by passing warships. For instance, the USS Wayne E. Meyer  was deployed to the South China Sea for many other operations that show US presence, and FONOPs in Spratly and Paracel Islands were probably supplementary. In particular, since 2019, the US navy has no longer follow a certain time interval. The time interval of its operations can range from nearly three months to as short as 13 days, with an intention to “behave solely at its will.”
        There has been an increasingly prevailing viewpoint in the US that

        “as the United States does not recognize Chinese title to the features, it is not obligated to observe requirements of a theoretical territorial sea.”  “Consistent practice of free navigation, not the reactive FONOP, is the policy best suited to respond to Chinese assertiveness in the SCS. This is especially true in areas such as the Spratly Islands where China has made no actual legal claims to challenge.”   

      So far, the prevailing perception in academia has also gradually influenced policies. Given that the US government has long been a firm advocate of the South China Sea Arbitration, it may regard FONOPs as part of its actions to implement the arbitration award and push forward such operations in a continuous and visible manner, regarding Spratly Islands as isolated and unrelated maritime features with limited maritime rights and interests. Meanwhile, the US may challenge maritime claims that it considers excessive, such as base points and baselines and the island-water divide around Paracel Islands, in a more aggressive and frequent way, so as to establish national practices in the sense of the international law. While observing the FONOPs, it is also necessary to note their legal background and objectives behind.

SCSPI

With a view to maintaining and promoting the peace, stability and prosperity of the South China Sea, Peking University Institute of Ocean Research has launched the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI). The Initiative aims to integrate intellectual resources and open source information worldwide and keep track of important actions and major policy changes of key stakeholders and other parties involved. It will provide professional data services and analysis reports to parties concerned, helping them keep competition under control, and with a view to seek partnerships.

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With a view to maintaining and promoting the peace, stability and prosperity of the South China Sea, Peking University Institute of Ocean Research has launched the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI). The Initiative aims to integrate intellectual resources and open source information worldwide and keep track of important actions and major policy changes of key stakeholders and other parties involved. It will provide professional data services and analysis reports to parties concerned, helping them keep competition under control, and with a view to seek partnerships.