Beijing describes the political situation in the South China Sea as improving. Recall that two years ago, a United Nations tribunal ruled that China’s vague claim to ownership of about 90 percent of the South China Sea — signified by the infamous “nine-dashed line” on Chinese maps — is invalid, as is China’s argument that its “historic rights” in the area take precedence over international law.

The court’s decision unleashed a torrent of China criticism. But fortuitously for Beijing, the Philippines, the country that brought the case against China, has under the Duterte administration sought to accommodate China rather than press the legal advantage bestowed by the tribunal. Hence Beijing’s optimistic outlook today that tensions have dissipated between China and the other five governments that claim territory within the nine-dashed line.

The main problem now, according to Beijing, lies not with the other claimants, but with the United States. U.S. ships and aircraft regularly pass close to Chinese-claimed rocks, reefs and sandbars, which Beijing says threatens China’s sovereignty. So as the Chinese Foreign Ministry says, the U.S. “deliberately stirs up troubles and creates tension in the South China Sea … running against the will of regional countries who aspire for stability.”

Beijing’s claimant centers on what the U.S. Navy calls “freedom of navigation operations,” or FONOPs. Why does America conduct FONOPs if they cause tensions?

For its own reasons, the U.S. took on the role of regional policeman after World War II. China has benefited in some ways from the U.S.-sponsored regional order. For example, the relatively free flow of international trade has fed China’s growth, and if not for U.S. “containment” of Japan through the U.S.-Japan alliance, Tokyo would probably have a nuclear arsenal now. But with China returning to its pre-modern status of regional great power, Beijing understandably wants the U.S. sheriff to ride out of town.

Other governments, however, want the U.S. to continue influencing the regional security environment, and Washington itself is not ready to abandon this role.

Regional cop duty over such a large geographic area requires the U.S. military to maximize its access to international sea and airspace, both to monitor potential problems and to move U.S. forces as efficiently as possible to where needed.

This leads to the U.S. Navy’s rationale for FONOPs: to push back against the attempt of any government to restrict what the U.S. interprets as international waterways.

Obviously China and the U.S. disagree about the status of parts of the South China Sea. U.S. FONOPs stay within the bounds of international law as outlined in the Law of the Sea Treaty and in the recent tribunal decision. In contrast, China’s territorial claims as well as Chinese complaints about U.S. FONOPs are not supported by the guidelines in the Law of the Sea. Beijing signed that treaty in 1996, but subsequently argued it does not apply to the South China Sea.

The U.S. government, and particularly the U.S. Navy, needs to do a better job of explaining U.S. FONOPs in the South China Sea to a foreign audience. The standard justification of standing up for “freedom of navigation” does not resonate in the region. The Chinese retort that no one is impeding the freedom of navigation. That is not quite accurate. Beijing routinely molests foreign fishing vessels or hydrocarbon survey ships in parts of the South China Sea, has tried to block resupply of the rusting Philippine citadel Sierra Madre within the Philippines’ own exclusive economic zone, and has repeatedly employed hooligan seamanship to harass U.S. ships surveilling China from outside Chinese territorial waters (allowed by the Law of the Sea).

But the Chinese do not interfere with the passage of cargo ships transiting the South China Sea. To the average citizen of a Southeast Asian country, this looks like free navigation, and Chinese complaints about U.S. spying off the Chinese coast seem reasonable.

The real danger here, and the reason FONOPs have value (and the reason Beijing tries to discredit them), is that Beijing is attempting to lay the groundwork for international acquiescence to the idea that China has exclusive privileges in the South China Sea. If successful in selling this principle, China will be in a position to selectively veto foreign activity in this waterway.

We already see portents of this objective. Every year Beijing unilaterally declares half of the South China Sea closed to foreign fishermen. In 2013 the Chinese government declared a sector of international waters in the South China Sea closed to foreign vessels due to a naval exercise, then used aggressive and dangerous maneuvering to ward off a U.S. ship that was observing from a distance of some 50 km.

Alongside the Chinese government claim that the U.S. Navy’s purpose is to “stir up trouble,” an alternative understanding of FONOPs is to see them as a signal of U.S. resistance to what is likely a long-term Chinese objective of establishing a sphere of influence over the South China Sea, a situation that would indeed curtail the freedom of passage of ships and aircraft associated with governments not on good terms with Beijing. If that day ever comes, we will regret that no one stood up earlier to object.

Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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