On 30 January, 95 days after its previous effort, the US Navy conducted another 'freedom of navigation operation' in the South China Sea (an operation known by the unlovely FONOP acronym).

This time around, the US improved the public diplomacy of the exercise with clear and reasonably unambiguous statements about just what it was (and was not) seeking to achieve. The move was notable for a range of reasons, not least the very high degree of publicity the US sought for the sail-past. 

Unlike the October operation which involved one of the reefs that China has augmented into an artificial island, this time the USS Wilbur Curtis sailed within 12 nautical miles of Triton Island, part of the Paracel group, which China has occupied for more than 40 years. These islands are claimed by Vietnam, China, and Taiwan. The US emphasised that its exercise was intended to undercut claims about territorial waters. Of course China was the principal target but Washington was trying hard to show that it was driven by principle and not enmity with Beijing. Interestingly, the Commander of the US Pacific Command Admiral Harris flagged the exercise was the beginning of an increase in the tempo and complexity of such operations.

In Australia, interest in the exercise is particularly strong with speculation rife about whether Australia should follow suit. The topic is reported to have been part of discussions during Prime Minister Turnbull's recent visit to Washington. Many commentators have advocated for Australia to conduct its own operation. Shadow Defence Minister Conroy has smelled party political advantage in getting out in front of the government on the issue. It is clear that the government is seriously considering its options, with Minister Payne indicating as much in recent statements.

But just what is the logic behind an Australian FONOP?

Australia is not a claimant, and its direct stake in the Sea is often over-stated. Sam Bateman and others have shown that the widely cited figure that 60% of Australia's exports flow through the Sea is badly off the mark. More importantly China — or, indeed, any other claimant — has not indicated any interest in impeding the flow of commercial shipping; it would plainly not be in anyone's interest to do so.

There are three main reasons for an Australian FONOP:

  1. That Australia should defend freedom of navigation from those whose actions challenge it;
  2. Australia should push back against China's more assertive actions in the Sea;
  3. Australia should take action to defend the strategic status quo in the face of efforts to change it. 

There is also, not too far below the surface, a sense that 'something must be done', and for some reason that something seems to be a FONOP. Yet, as Greg Raymond has pointed out, that something is actually much more complex and risky than many politicians and pundits appear to realise. 

A FONOP should not happen because of a sense that something must be done to push back against a country that seems to only understand the currency of force. Such a rationale massively increases the risks of miscalculation and escalation, badly overstates the ability of such an operation to achieve the lofty goals of pundits and politicians, and needlessly increases the temperature in a region which is already pretty febrile.

More importantly, it's not clear how an Australian operation would achieve the three goals listed above in any meaningful sense. What seems to be lost in the discussion is that, beyond the obvious risks and side costs to bilateral relations with claimants, the results any such exercise would achieve (or not) would depend on the precise nature of the operation.

Given the risks, how might a FONOP achieve a strategic return for Australia?

One of the principal problems with China's broader gambit in the South China Sea, and particularly in relation to its recent activities in the Spratlys, is that Beijing has been deliberately ambiguous about what it is seeking to achieve. Many assume that China is building islands to make territorial sea claims, yet there has been no formal statement to that effect. The 'dashed-line' continues to lack precise meaning. Is it a maritime boundary? Is it an EEZ (exclusive economic zone)? Is it an ambit claim? An Australian operation wold need to identify precisely what claim it believes is contrary to the larger principles it is seeking to defend and then organise an exercise to that end. 

A FONOP with Australian characteristics should only occur if it is part of a larger strategy toward the South China Sea and the region more generally. If Canberra wants to go down this path, Australia needs to work to make sure that other like-minded countries take similar steps and that it is not only Australia, Japan and the US taking action. An expression of international will needs to be just that. The military operations have to be matched by diplomatic and political efforts to demilitarise the dispute, and to build durable means to manage the competing interests of Asia's states and peoples.

Undertaking a FONOP is fraught with risk, both in narrow operational terms as well as in the broader sense that it would increase the strategic temperature in the region. A FONOP informed by ill-thought-out notions of pushing back on China and lacking a larger vision of the complex realities of Asia's changing international environment would only contribute to growing military tension in the region. Alongside careful planning about a possible military exercise, Canberra should also be undertaking extensive diplomatic efforts to work with other non-claimant states, both US allies and non-allies, to lower the temperature in the South China Sea and to begin a conversation about the difficult steps we need to take to ensure Asia enjoys a regional order that is not dominated a militarised Sino-American rivalry.

Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Image Library.