National Security & Defense

Freedom of Navigation in an Era of Great-Power Competition

The guided-missile destroyer USS Kidd under way in the South China Sea in 2014. (Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Declan Barnes/US Navy)
Vis-à-vis China, the U.S. Navy and Defense Department could learn from a U.S.–Soviet agreement during the Cold War.

The U.S. Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPs) — maneuvers that challenge excessive maritime claims and demonstrate America’s commitment to freedom of the seas — in the South China Sea have received a lot of press coverage over the last few months, most notably after a Chinese destroyer nearly collided with the USS Decatur last October. U.S. FONOPs have drawn the ire of Chinese officials — one Chinese senior colonel suggested ramming U.S. ships conducting FONOPs. Yet these operations, and the unhappy response they’ve received, are nothing new in the recent history of great-power competition. As David F. Winkler documents in his book Incidents at Sea, one need look no further back than the 1980s, when the United States and the Soviet Union sparred over the same issue. A review of that history offers several lessons the United States can apply to its relations with China today.

The 1980s saw elevated naval tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. This was partly due to an expansion of the Soviet navy’s operations in the eastern Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf, which brought Soviet and American ships into more frequent contact. The two countries held conflicting views on maritime rights, and each took steps to enforce its own position. President Carter initiated an aggressive FONOPs program in 1979 to defend navigation rights on the high seas and challenge excessive territorial claims, and three years later the USSR responded with navigation laws that refused to recognize any right of innocent passage through its territorial waters in the Black Sea.

The increased operational proximity between the two navies, coupled with the U.S. Navy’s annual execution of 35 to 40 FONOPs, led to several high-profile incidents during the decade. These included ship collisions as well as the firing of flares and warning shots at U.S. ships by the Soviets. Tensions rose to a point where the U.S. warned its commanders not to provoke the Soviets, though in a secret message it instructed them to show neither “timidity or deference” in the face of aggression. Then, during the final days of the Cold War, the Soviet response to FONOPs took a more hostile turn. In January 1988, a Soviet admiral declared the United States’ FONOPs illegal, adding that “any foreign ships violating our sovereignty in the future should be destroyed.” The following month, two Soviet ships acted on his statement by intentionally colliding with the USS Yorktown and the USS Caron in the Black Sea after verbal warnings were ignored.

That these incidents did not spiral further out of control can be attributed at least in part to an agreement that the United States and the USSR signed following  a spate of at-sea incidents during the late 1960s. The Incidents at Sea Agreement (INCSEA) served as a confidence-building measure between the two countries. It instituted guidelines for the American and Soviet navies to follow when operating near each other, provided an advanced-notification mechanism for potentially dangerous operations, and established channels to ask clarifying questions. It also facilitated annual review meetings, where frank exchanges could take place. During the 1988 session, one Soviet admiral disclosed that the severe response to FONOPs, including the intentional collision, was directly tied to political pressures on the Soviet navy. INCSEA proved to be so effective that it remains in force between the United States and Russia today.

There are clear similarities between this history and the Chinese reaction to FONOPs today. As the number of ships and aircraft in the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) grows and its operational reach expands outside the western Pacific, the United States can expect more interactions with the Chinese navy. Given the United States’ current program of FONOPs in the South China Sea, the operating environment between the U.S. Navy and the PLAN will increasingly resemble the one that existed between the United Sates and the USSR in the 1980s. And while this does not necessarily mean there will be a replay of Cold War ship collisions and at-sea incidents, recent statements from China’s leadership and occasional aggressive actions of PLAN ships and aircraft in the South China Sea indicate that naval interactions between the U.S. and China are headed in that direction. The U.S. Navy must be ready for a re-occurrence.

Yet even as the Navy prepares to operate in an increasingly tense environment, the United States should not abandon confidence-building measures with China and the PLAN. China continues to engage with the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and was a signatory to the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in 2014. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Defense and China’s Ministry of Defense have already signed a ministry-to-ministry agreement, the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), that is similar to INCSEA. Unfortunately, as Winkler points out, the agreement’s consultation process remains at the mercy of politics, does not establish a direct navy-to-navy communications channel, and is simply too informal to address matters of real importance. Correcting these deficiencies should be a priority.

There are steps the Navy can take to achieve these goals. First, it should expect that the PLAN will take a more assertive posture in response to American FONOPs in the South China Sea, and that it will expand its operations outside the western Pacific. Naval commanders must be trained to react to a variety of potential antagonistic actions from PLAN ships and aircraft, including verbal warnings, aggressive maneuvering, intentional collisions, and overt threats such as warning shots. Second, the United States needs to recognize that FONOPs, and Chinese reactions to them, can lead to an increase in hostile rhetoric and more aggressive responses against units conducting those missions. Remaining flexible in the timing, execution, and publicity of FONOPs needs to be part of the deliberate planning process. Finally, the Department of Defense should push to have the MMCA re-signed as a government-to-government, executive-level agreement that mirrors the U.S.–Russia INCSEA. INCSEA proved its worth during the Cold War, and an updated MMCA has the potential to similarly ease U.S.–China tensions on the high seas.

Bob Jones is a career surface-warfare officer currently assigned as a federal executive fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

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