Dangerous "Assertions" of the Freedom of Navigation

The United States' sailing of a Navy warship within 12 miles of the Chinese-built island of Subi Reef militarizes the growing conflict over which state (or states) has sovereignty rights over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Moreover, this military exercise is more aggressive than previous ones in which the United States "asserted" its self-appointed role as the world's "cop" who is charged with enforcing the freedom of navigation. Obviously, beefing up these islands--by adding sands and buildings--does not per se interfere with anyone's freedom of navigation. If China uses these islands to foster its territorial claims, other states can challenge these assertions in the courts and protest them through diplomatic démarches instead of with warships. Indeed, China has often settled such disputes in recent decades using negotiations that have led to settlements that neutral parties consider to be fair ones. Resorting instead to military means is likely to increase tensions between the United States and China and could lead to military clashes.

The United States has long claimed that it serves the global common good by engaging in little-known operations called "freedom of navigation assertions" (FONA). In carrying out these assertions, which the United States carries out against friend and foe alike, the United States has appointed itself as global judge. It unilaterally decides whether a claim violates freedom of navigation, provides no opportunity for those so charged to justify their claims, and uses its Navy to execute what it considers to be the proper corrective--that is, sending its warships to violate the territorial rights claimed by the other state.

Media reports indicate that the United States is asserting itself now, in this area, because its allies are nervous about the United States' reliability as an ally in light of what some see as China's aggression. Note, though, that China has carefully avoided using its military in practically all territorial disputes in the South China Sea; it has specifically used fishing vessels and dredging vessels in order not to escalate the conflict, even though it views the islands at issue as part of its territory.

United States allies in the area, led by Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, are unlikely to be reassured by such maneuvers if the United States continues to seem to allow itself to be pushed around and out in the Middle East by Russia, Iran, and terrorist groups. That is, as long as United States allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel, feel abandoned as the Shiite alliance gains ground, other United States allies elsewhere will worry whether the United States will do better by them. If the United States seeks to shore up its credibility, it would be better to show that it is able to "degrade and destroy ISIS," as it committed itself to doing more than a year ago, rather than escalating and militarizing the conflict with China.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of "Freedom of Navigation Assertions: The United States as the World's Policeman," Security First, and Privacy in the Cyber Age. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an email to icps@gwu.edu.

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