U.S. Navy Tweaks Xi's Nose in the South China Sea

The USS Lassen is seen in formation with South Korea's ROKS Sokcho in waters east of the Korean Peninsula on March 12. U.S. Navy/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

On October 26, the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, came within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, a low-tide elevation upon which China has built an artificial island.

The patrol, which came after months of deliberations within the Obama administration, marked the Navy's first freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the Spratly Islands since 2012.

The Good

Unfortunately, the Obama administration has already taught Beijing that defending freedom of the seas is no longer automatic for the United States. That damage cannot be easily undone.

Unnamed Pentagon officials, however, have indicated that the maneuver was not a one-off. If that is the case, the Lassen patrol will mark the first step in demonstrating to a global audience that the United States will exercise the rights allowed it under both customary maritime law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea.

Allies and adversaries alike, in all regions, must know that the United States, as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has put it, "will fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows."

The Bad

The first of what will hopefully be repeated FONOPs in the South China Sea conveys, finally, a U.S. commitment to defending the prevailing maritime order.

But China has already rejected that order. And American FONOPs near Subi indicate a rejection of Chinese claims of sovereignty there. On issues of world order and of sovereignty over at least some features in the South China Sea, it's difficult to see the middle ground.

Essentially, the United States and China have engaged in a contest over what Asia's future will look like: where its borders are drawn, the rules of the international system, accepted norms of behavior and how states interact and solve disputes.

Beijing likely views the Lassen maneuver as a setback, not a defeat. But does the United States recognize that it is involved in a long-term strategic competition with China? Is it prepared—materially, intellectually, physically—to compete for the long haul?

Michael Mazza is a research fellow in foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where he analyzes U.S. defense policy in the Asia-Pacific region, Chinese military modernization, cross-Taiwan Strait relations and Korean Peninsula security.