If You're Thinking About a Looming Naval-Warfare Showdown in the South China Sea ...

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
U.S. commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift, discussing freedom of navigation earlier this month, in Australia. (David Gray / Reuters)

… here are a few things to read:

1) “China Announces the U.S.’s Spratly Patrols to the Masses,” by Andrew Chubb in SouthSeaConversations. This is an informative view on the domestic-Chinese politics of this episode of standing up to the bullying American forces. Sample:

The high-handed [Chinese] demand that the American side “correct its mistakes” leaves the CCP [Chinese govt] well positioned to claim that its stern response forced an aggressive hegemon to back down.

At least one US official has described the patrols are “routine“, suggesting there will be more to come. Even if the US patrols happen, say, once a month from now on, it will be up to the CCP to decide how often Chinese mass audiences hear about this. Having established a high level of domestic publicity on this occasion, the CCP might well be able to (implicitly or explicitly) encourage the perception that it forced the US to back down, simply by not affording the publicity to future FoN [Freedom of Navigation] patrols.

2) “The U.S. Asserts Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea,” by Michael J. Green, Bonnie S. Glaser, Gregory B. Poling on the CSIS site. This is an informative Q-and-A feature on the latest developments and their implications. Sample, on why the U.S. Navy is conducting Freedom of Navigation exercises in this area to begin with:

FON operations are intended to challenge maritime claims that the United States considers excessive under international law…. This particular operation was intended to assert that the United States does not recognize a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea or any other maritime entitlements generated by reefs that were originally submerged but on which China has built artificial islands. It was not meant to challenge China’s claim to Subi Reef itself.

FON operations are not primarily about military deterrence or diplomatic messaging, though in a politically charged atmosphere like the South China Sea those play a role. At its root, FON operations are legal exercises to reinforce the United States’—and in this case the overwhelming majority of the international community’s—interpretations of international maritime law. They are a means to ensure that U.S. naval, coast guard, and civilian ships, and by extension those of all nations, maintain unrestricted access to their rights at sea.

A lot more to read there.

3) “Reckless, Dangerous, Irresponsible.” A report on the Chinese view. Sample:

"The action by the U.S. warship has threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, endangered the safety of personnel and facilities on the islands and damaged regional peace and stability," said Lu Kang, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry. Kang urged the U.S. government to "correct its wrongdoing immediately" and to avoid further "dangerous and provocative actions."

4) “After the show, time for U.S. destroyer to leave.” From a usually aggressive voice of the Chinese government, Global Times. Sample:

The Pentagon is obviously provoking China. It is time to test the wisdom and determination of the Chinese people.

We should stay calm. If we feel disgraced and utter some furious words, it will only make the US achieve its goal of irritating us.

5) “U.S. Not Provoking China.” A contrary view. Sample:

Whatever the protestations from Beijing and others, this will no doubt be just the first of many freedom of navigation operations in and around the Spratly Islands.


The right U.S. policy, in my view, is continuing to send ships through these traditionally international  sea lanes*, as a reminder that China has not annexed them; but without gloating or chest-bumping China about it, an approach that has no record of having paid off. You’ll see more of the rationale in these articles.

Update: Read this followup note, “The Right Way to Enforce Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea.”

* Clarification I’ve heard from readers who point out that there are technical maritime connotations to the term “sea lanes,” along with the related concept of SLOCs, Sea Lines of Communication. I am using the term here in an everyday sense of navigable waters that had traditionally been considered international, rather than as a technical maritime term.