US Conducts 1st South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Op Under Biden

By Zachary Haver
US Conducts 1st South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Op Under Biden The guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain transits through the South China Sea, Feb. 5, 2021.
U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy completed on Friday its first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea since President Joe Biden took office, a move criticized by the Chinese military as “seriously violating China’s sovereignty and security.”

According to a news release from the U.S. 7th Fleet, the USS John S. McCain, a guided-missile destroyer, “asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands,” an area in the northern South China Sea contested by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

China claims straight baselines around the Paracel Islands, a position widely seen as inconsistent with international maritime law. In January, Japan joined a growing list of countries that have recently submitted diplomatic notes to the United Nations to formally challenge these claims.

The United States has conducted regular FONOPS in the South China Sea since 2015. These operations “are designed to be conducted in accordance with international law and demonstrate that the United States will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows — regardless of the location of excessive maritime claims and regardless of current events,” the news release stated.

The operation “upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and also by challenging China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” the news release said.

A spokesperson for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Southern Theater Command criticized the FONOP, stating that the USS John S. McCain “intruded into China’s Xisha [Paracels] territorial sea without permission.” The spokesperson accused the U.S. military of “seriously damaging regional peace and stability” and “seriously violating China’s sovereignty and security.”

According to the spokesperson, the Southern Theater Command organized naval and air assets to track the U.S. warship and warn it away from the area.

Cmdr. Joseph Gunta, the executive officer of the USS John S. McCain, observes from the vessel as it sails in the South China Sea. Feb. 5, 2021. Credit: U.S. Navy.
Cmdr. Joseph Gunta, the executive officer of the USS John S. McCain, observes from the vessel as it sails in the South China Sea, Feb. 5, 2021. Credit: U.S. Navy.

China claims virtually all of the South China Sea and its assertive behavior in these disputed waters have been a source of tension with the U.S. Friday’s FONOP was the latest indication from the Biden administration that it is sustaining U.S. policies that challenge China’s claims and promote what Washington calls a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

In a call Thursday with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated that stance. Vietnam is the most assertive among the Southeast Asian nations that challenge China’s South China Sea claims.

Blinken and Minh “reaffirmed the strength of the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership and discussed our shared commitment to peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific region and protecting and preserving a rules-based South China Sea,” the State Department said.

Also Friday, the U.S. Nimitz Carrier Strike Group navigated through the Strait of Malacca into the South China Sea, USNI News reported. It’s the second foray into those waters by a U.S. aircraft carrier since Biden took office last month. In January, the United States sailed the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group into the South China Sea for routine operations including maritime strike exercises and coordinated tactical training between surface and air units.

In a reminder of the day-to-day tensions in the South China Sea, particularly in waters where there are overlapping claims, a Malaysian coastguard vessel appears to have sailed up to a China Coast Guard (CCG) ship at South Luconia Shoals in the past week, about 100 nautical miles off Malaysia’s coast.

Publicly available automatic identification system (AIS) data shows that the HJ5202, which belongs to the CCG, has been operating around the South Luconia Shoals since Jan. 17. The area is within Malaysia exclusive economic zone but is also claimed by China.

The Coast Guard 3902, a Malaysian vessel, sailed up to the South Luconia Shoals from Tanjung Kidurong on Feb. 2 and returned to port on Feb. 4. The AIS data indicates that the HJ5202 may have sailed within 1.5 to 2 nautical miles of the Coast Guard 3902 at one point on Feb. 4.


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