US will step up FONOPs
BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Babe Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - October 7, 2018 - 12:00am

After the “close encounter of the unsafe kind” last week between US Navy destroyer USS Decatur and Chinese destroyer Lanzhou during a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) conducted by the American ship in the vicinity of Gaven Reef in the Spratlys, the US Pacific Fleet is drafting a classified proposal for a series of operations involving warships, combat aircraft and troops to show that the United States has the power and the capability to counter any opponent on any front. A part of the US Indo-Pacific Command, the US Pacific Fleet is the world’s largest fleet command with 200 naval vessels, almost 1,200 aircraft and over 130,000 personnel under its command.  

Reports indicate that USS Decatur – whose motto is “In Pursuit of Peace” – was concluding its FONOP and was already headed out of the 12-nautical mile zone around Gaven Reef when the Chinese ship came within 41 meters – which could have resulted in a collision had the US destroyer not maneuvered away.   

For several decades now, the US has been conducting FONOPs all over the world to uphold a rules-based international order and challenge excessive (territorial) claims of countries. In conducting these sail-by operations, the US has consistently declared that it will “fly, sail, and operate anywhere (that) international law allows.”  

In the South China Sea, the conduct of FONOPs by the United States has been acknowledged by US strategists as critical in maintaining the balance of power and ensuring the free flow of commerce considering that an estimated $5 trillion of global trade passes through this critical waterway. 

We can expect more FONOPs under the administration of President Donald Trump, although these sail-by operations are planned in absolute secrecy. Last May, the US made a strong assertion when two of its warships – the destroyer USS Higgins and the cruiser USS Antietam – conducted FONOPs in the Paracel Islands. It was the first time that two US Navy ships were involved in a freedom of navigation operation. 

While the US does not want to escalate the tension and has no intention to start a war with China, it “will not be intimidated” and “will not stand down,” as Vice President Mike Pence declared in a major policy speech on China last Thursday where he also condemned the “reckless harassment” displayed by China when its destroyer almost collided with USS Decatur. 

Not surprisingly, China’s Defense Ministry has denounced the US, saying the actions of the USS Decatur has threatened the sovereignty and security of China.

“The US side repeatedly sends military ships without permission into seas close to South China Seas islands, seriously threatening China’s sovereignty and security, seriously damaging Sino-US military ties and seriously harming regional peace and stability,” China’s Defense Ministry said. 

Experts say that the Chinese vessel’s “unprofessional” maneuver that almost resulted in a collision shows that China is “feeling the heat” and so must act to assert its claims. Early last month, the British Navy ship HMS Albion sailed past the Paracel Islands, earning the ire of the Chinese who complained that the British vessel infringed on China’s sovereignty. The British Navy asserted that the HMS Albion was exercising its rights for “freedom of navigation in full compliance with international law and norms.”

Interestingly, the recent results of an annual survey involving 25 countries conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that an overwhelming majority – Asian countries included – prefer the US to be the leading global power versus China especially in the South China Sea. 

The same survey also showed that the Philippines is one of the countries that has the most positive perception of the US under the leadership of President Donald Trump, with 78 percent of respondents from the Philippines indicating they trust the US president. Not at all surprising since in the last survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations in the last quarter of 2017, results showed that majority of Filipinos have much trust in the US while their attitude toward China is willy-nilly.

During meetings that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and I had with State Secretary Mike Pompeo, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser John Bolton, one of the major discussions centered on the West Philippine Sea amid a broad range of defense concerns. In those meetings, the longstanding defense relationship between the two countries was reaffirmed. Our commitment to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty remains intact. 

 At the recent 2018 Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) meeting between Admiral Philip Davidson, Commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command and Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Carlito Galvez, the US and the Philippines agreed on 281 security cooperation activities for 2019 on areas that involve national and security interests that include counterterrorism and maritime security, among many others. The forthcoming security activities lined up for 2019 are more than the number of activities that will be conducted this year. 

Intelligence strategists affirm that the signing of the MDB-SEB agreement is a clear indication that the military alliance between the Philippines and the US continues to be strong, dynamic and robust. “It does send a message (that) everything is on an even keel; the alliance remains strong,” avers the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative director Greg Poling. 

As I have told our many congressional friends in Washington, D.C., this alliance is deeply embedded and its foundation so solid that it will continue for many decades to come regardless of what happens. There are just so many historical ties between our countries.

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