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China’s stance on freedom of navigation may shift

Friday, June 9, 2017

Subject

China's response to US Navy 'freedom of navigation' operations in the South China Sea.

Significance

The USS Dewey conducted on May 24 a 'freedom of navigation operation' (FoNOps) within 12 nautical miles of the artificial island that China has built on Mischief Reef. This is the first the US Navy has undertaken in the South China Sea since President Donald Trump's administration took office. It was unprecedentedly assertive, challenging for the first time the existence of territorial seas around one of China's artificial islands.

Impacts

  • US patrols may intensify over the coming months, though with less publicity.
  • If China resumes assertive activities in the South China Sea, Australia and Japan will seriously consider patrols of their own.
  • China's navy may perceive an institutional interest in greater acceptance of freedom of navigation for military vessels.
  • Chinese sub-state actors with interests in ongoing tensions over the issue will likely oppose a loosening of the Chinese position.
  • The views of President Xi Jinping will be a crucial determinant of China’s policy.
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