Will Americans Die for Freedom of Navigation?

The Navy’s favorite tool in Asia is deeply flawed.

By Jonathan G. Panter, a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University who previously served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy.
A U.S. aircraft carrier leaves its San Diego port.
A U.S. aircraft carrier leaves its San Diego homeport on a scheduled deployment to the Indo-Pacific on Jan. 17, 2020. U.S. Navy via Getty Images

The U.S. Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOP) in East Asia are often sold as a way to challenge China’s aggression at sea and reinforce norms. But in reality, they endanger U.S. lives and national assets in a game of brinksmanship that promises little meaningful benefit. When Chinese ships challenge these operations, the nature of close-quarter maneuvers and shipboard command and controls can increase the risk of accidents and escalation. It’s time to take a hard look at FONOPS—and see if better means aren’t available.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS)—which the United States has not ratified but respects as customary international law—states may claim a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles and an “exclusive economic zone” of 200 nautical miles from their shorelines. These zones permit the exercise of rights ranging from law enforcement to natural resource extraction.

According to UNCLOS, vessels sailing through a state’s territorial sea enjoy the right of “innocent passage,” the freedom to transit in a non-threatening and non-disruptive manner. Warships may transit without prior notification but may not conduct military activities. There are no restrictions on military activity in an exclusive economic zone.

In a FONOP, U.S. warships enter an unrecognized claim and generally conduct one of two activities. They may simply transit without notification or they may conduct explicit military activities, such as launching aircraft, to show that innocent passage provisions do not apply in that area.

In the South China Sea—which lies between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Brunei—the Spratly and Paracel Islands have triggered competing maritime claims. Under UNCLOS, a state may make maritime claims around an island if it is natural, habitable, and not submerged at the high-water mark. Through years of heavy construction, China has transformed several reefs and rock outcroppings to meet the last two criteria but in doing so has violated the first. China uses military installations on these islands to regulate foreign activity in a massive claimed economic zone within a boundary called the “nine-dash line.”

Since 2015, the United States has increasingly challenged these claims, first setting a record in 2019 with nine FONOPS, and again beating that record with 13 in 2020: Jan. 25, March 10, April 28, April 29, May 28, July 14, Aug. 27, Aug. 28, Sept. 11, Oct. 9, Nov. 24, Dec. 22, and Dec. 24.

FONOPs infuriate Chinese authorities, who send military vessels to follow U.S. warships or attempt to divert them off course – creating a substantial risk of accidents.

In assessing the risk of accidents, two principles of ship handling are instructive. First, a warship displacing thousands of tons and moving at high speeds generates enormous momentum. After turning its rudder, the ship continues to advance on its original course before the turn is complete, a significant danger if another ship is ahead of it. When attempting to stop, even by reversing propulsion, it may continue to move forward for hundreds of feet.

Second, ships do not turn like cars but instead pivot about an axis. The ship’s stern swings in the opposite direction from the turn. When accelerating (as is common in evasive maneuvers), the pivot point leaps forward, aggravating the stern’s swing. This presents a danger of collision when another vessel alongside it attempts to turn away. The Venturi effect, whereby water in the narrow space between the ships exerts suction, can exacerbate the danger.

A 2018 near collision, in which a Chinese warship approached a U.S. destroyer within 50 yards and tried to block its path, illustrated these hazards. Given the principles above, the collision could have been bow to beam (during the Chinese approach) or stern to beam (during the U.S. destroyer’s evasive turn). A collision might therefore have penetrated either ship’s hull in vital areas below the waterline, damaging electrical power distribution and communication spaces, as occurred onboard the USS Fitzgerald in 2017 (in an incident unrelated to FONOPs).

The characteristics of shipboard command and control add escalatory potential to such an accident. Ship captains enjoy high autonomy, especially in emergencies. But ships are also complex , combining warfighting and life-support functions. In time-sensitive and high-stress situations, therefore, officers often rely on pre-scripted procedures. An early misjudgment can then precipitate a catastrophic chain reaction, as the 1988 USS Vincennes shoot-down of an Iranian civilian airliner or the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident showed.

A collision that disrupts electrical power, as described above, could make these “scripted” mistakes more likely. Losing sensors, such as radar, would impair a crew’s situational awareness, making it hard to determine whether vessels arriving to assist are indeed neutral. This is especially true in the South China Sea, which is packed with government-affiliated fishing vessels. Finally, degradations to communications equipment might impede higher authorities’ efforts to deescalate the situation.

Both the United States and China have a high incentive to prevent a collision from escalating into prolonged diplomatic tension or even a military conflict. For instance, during the Hainan island incident in 2001—a mid-air collision between U.S. and Chinese military aircraft—both sides took pains to provide the other with a graceful exit. Because that incident was resolved peacefully and was soon overshadowed by 9/11, it is easy to forget that it consumed months of diplomats’ time and poisoned other areas of cooperation. Peacefully resolved crises are not without costs.

Moreover, crisis resolution is not guaranteed even if desired by both sides. As late economist Thomas Schelling wrote about Cold War nuclear brinksmanship, escalations can arise from the nature of bargaining itself. Each side would like to appear truly unbudgeable in its demands, but it is difficult to convince an opponent that one is willing to accept costs (such as loss of economic relations or even war) that outweigh the value of one’s aims.

To get what they want, therefore, states often argue that their “hands are tied” by an aggrieved domestic public demanding action. Because each side has incentives to win the bargaining process this way, the crisis could worsen despite each state’s desire to end it. For the crisis to deescalate, one side has to believe the other’s hands are truly tied and back down.

In this contest, China has some advantages. The Chinese Communist Party has spent decades fomenting nationalism, based around the narrative of resisting humiliation by foreign states. This effort appears to have worked: The majority of the Chinese public, and notably the younger generation, holds hawkish foreign-policy views, especially with respect to maritime claims and U.S. military presence in East Asia. Moreover, Chinese nationalist protests operate as a “costly signal.” Opponents know that protests in authoritarian regimes are a double-edged sword and may see the Chinese government’s choice to permit them as a sign that it means business. On the other hand, if the other side perceives authoritarian protests as manufactured, as Japan did during the 2012 Senkaku/Diaoyu crisis, it may escalate the crisis further. The U.S. government lacks the costly signaling advantage that China enjoys when it comes to public protest, but in a crisis, it could still point to indicators that its hands are tied. There is a growing bipartisan consensus on “standing up” to China, although it is less clear whether this extends beyond the economic realm. And the American public has expressed greater distrust for China in recent public opinion surveys.

But the United States has some disadvantages as well. First, the United States is advocating for a global norm, not its own sovereignty. As Schelling pointed out, it is harder to claim that one’s “national honor” is at risk over threats to someone else’s territory. Second, given the prior observations about China’s hawkish youth, it is worth looking at the demographic breakdown in the United States as well. Younger voters—millennials and Generation Z—are less likely to have confidence in the U.S. military than their elders, believe in the wisdom of supporting allies militarily, and view China as the main threat to the United States. Finally, the U.S. public’s newfound Sino-skepticism may be driven mostly by changes on one side of the aisle.

Proponents of FONOPs contend they employ U.S. might to support a norm critical to world economic prosperity and U.S. national security. The Biden administration is expected to continue these operations apace, with the most recent conduced on Feb. 5 and Feb. 17. The emerging reality is that although freedom of navigation is indeed important, it is becoming costlier to uphold by military means. Because the annual number of FONOPs is increasing and the Chinese fleet is expanding, the risk of accidents is growing. Basic principles of ship handling and the nature of shipboard command and control suggest it may only be a matter of time before the next crisis.

In addition to lost lives and material from accidents—for a U.S. fleet in East Asia is already stretched thin, as investigations into numerous accidents have shown—there’s also the political cost. All the ingredients are present for a long, drawn-out crisis that, even if it stops short of war, would prove highly disruptive to U.S. efforts to cooperate with China on areas of great import.

At the same time, the implicit threat behind FONOPs—that the U.S. public is willing to pay for the norm of freedom of navigation in lives or dollars should China challenge it militarily—is on shaky ground. Despite general bipartisan hawkishness on China, there is ample evidence that Americans are growing weary of foreign military commitments. If the United States endures a drawn-out confrontation with China with little perceptible gain, this could further eat into domestic appetite for other, perhaps more necessary, U.S. military activities abroad.

Instead of committing to risky and politically dubious operations, the United States should encourage its allies with greater stakes in the region to assume the responsibility for FONOPs while the United States enforces the norm via issue linkages where it possesses more coercive leverage. This could both increase the likelihood of compliance and reduce the risk of accidents and escalations that endanger a fleet with far more important responsibilities.

Jonathan G. Panter is a doctoral candidate in political science at Columbia University. His research examines the origins of naval organizational practices. Panter previously served as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy and received his bachelor of arts in government from Cornell University in 2012. His work has been published in War on the Rocks, Proceedings, Military Review, and the Wall Street Journal.