U.S. Navy Conducts Two South China Sea FONOPS in Two Days

USS Barry (left) and USS Bunker Hill (right) under way in the South China Sea, April 18. Both vessels conducted FONOPS this week (USN)

Published Apr 29, 2020 6:35 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Wednesday, the cruiser USS Bunker Hill conducted the U.S. Navy's second freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea in as many days, U.S. 7th Fleet reported. The vessel sailed past an unspecified feature in the Spratly Islands.

Multiple states have overlapping claims in the Spratly chain, and China has occupied and militarized several land features in the archipelago. China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim to impose restrictions on vessel traffic within these waters, despite the UNCLOS requirement for states to provide unimpeded access for innocent passage through territorial seas. "By engaging in innocent passage without giving prior notification to or asking permission from any of the claimants, the United States challenged the unlawful restrictions imposed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. The United States demonstrated that innocent passage may not be subject to such restrictions," 7th Fleet said in a statement. 

The right of innocent passage protects ships passing through a nation's territorial seas; on the high seas, which are beyond national regulation, this protection not required. Analysts have previously cautioned that conducting an "innocent passage" voyage through Chinese-claimed waters would implicitly validate Chinese sovereignty by implying that the area is subject to national jurisdiction. 

The destroyer USS Barry conducted a previous freedom of navigation operation near the Chinese-claimed Paracel Islands on Tuesday. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Command asserted that its forces "identified the [Barry], warned and expelled it."

“These provocative acts by the U.S. side . . . have seriously violated China’s sovereignty and security interests, deliberately increased regional security risks and could easily trigger an unexpected incident,” PLA Southern Command said in a statement issued after USS Barry's operation. 

The United States has not ratified UNCLOS, but it acknowledges it as a codification of pre-existing international law. The U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations in waters around the world in order to reinforce the treaty's protections for merchant shipping.