March 08, 2019

Freedom of Navigation in an Era of Great-Power Competition

By CDR Bob Jones

The U.S. Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) — maneuvers that challenge excessive maritime claims and demonstrate America’s commitment to freedom of the seas — in the South China Sea have received a lot of press coverage over the last few months, most notably after a Chinese destroyer nearly collided with the USS Decatur last October. U.S. FONOPs have drawn theire of Chinese officials — one Chinese senior colonel suggested ramming U.S. ships conducting FONOPs. Yet these operations, and the unhappy response they’ve received, are nothing new in the recent history of great-power competition. As David F. Winkler documents in his book Incidents at Sea, one need look no further back than the 1980s, when the United States and the Soviet Union sparred over the same issue. A review of that history offers several lessons the United States can apply to its relations with China today.

The 1980s saw elevated naval tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. This was partly due to an expansion of the Soviet navy’s operations in the eastern Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf, which brought Soviet and American ships into more frequent contact. The two countries held conflicting views on maritime rights, and each took steps to enforce its own position. President Carter initiated an aggressive FONOPs program in 1979 to defend navigation rights on the high seas and challenge excessive territorial claims, and three years later the USSR responded with navigation laws that refused to recognize any right of innocent passage through its territorial waters in the Black Sea.

Read the full article in National Review.

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