FON operations in the South China Sea matter little for trade

FON operations in the South China Sea matter little for trade

While Freedom of Navigation (FON) operations in the South China Sea have heightened tensions between the US and China, trade continues to remain unaffected.

The beginning of November marked the first time the U.S. sailed a warship, the Lassen, within 12 nautical miles of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea in a Freedom of Navigation (FON) operation. While the move was welcomed by U.S. allies in the region, it served as an expensive protest at China’s claims.

The big powers

US-China trade has continued to expand year on year since diplomatic relations were established, And although it’s too early to decisively conclude, there is little sign that the FON operations have negatively affected their strong economic relationship. On the contrary, should the current trends continue, China will soon surpass Canada as the United States’ largest trade partner.

This of course, has followed a general trend in the South China Sea where despite competing claims between different claimant states and China, trade has been unaffected in the region.

The problem with the FON operations is that they were the least worst option the Obama administration had as they sought to reassure their allies that the U.S. continues to play an active, ‘hard-power’, role in the Asia Pacific region – without risking its own relationship with China.

Moreover, FON operations are nothing new from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy; they have been used to challenge ‘excessive claims’ around the world since 1979. In 2014, the U.S. carried out 35 FON operations, of which 19 were in the Pacific area of command and were conducted against countries including Taiwan, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

The status quo in the South China Sea

The danger within U.S. discourse is to view FON operations as ‘special’ measures to deal with China, which consequently fosters the view in China that its territory (read: national security) is being challenged.

Indeed, some have even pointed at the mixed signals being sent by Washington. Following the Lassen’s sail-through of China’s artificial islands, its sister ship, the Stethem, paid a week-long goodwill port visit to Shanghai. These kinds of actions reaffirm that if both countries continue their current policies there will be little risk to the U.S.-China relationship.

The point to recall is that the U.S. and Chinese economies are integrated to such an extent that any conflict would result in significant economic damages to both countries. Despite reports that Beijing has started selling U.S. debt, the sheer amount of cross border investment in both countries acts as an insurance policy against any radical departure from the status quo.

This economic integration can only be improved. Following the Sino-U.S. summit in September, both countries pledged to push towards achieving a bilateral investment treaty that would greatly open up their economies to further trade and investment and align their interests even closer.

The South China Sea will inevitably continue to act as a source of tension between the U.S. and China. However, as far as both countries should be concerned, the FON operations will do little to harm their ‘win-win’ relationship.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Nicolas Jenny

Nicolas Jenny specialises in European and Asian political risk analysis. He has lived extensively throughout the region and speaks English, French and Mandarin. He holds a double master's from Sciences Po Paris and Fudan University and a BSc in politics from the University of Bristol.