03 December 2015

Necessity, Reality: Maintaining Freedom and Peace at Sea

Andrew S. Erickson, “Necessity, Reality: Maintaining Freedom and Peace at Sea,” S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) Commentary CO15235, South China Sea Series, 5 November 2015.


The morning of 27 October witnessed the latest of what is likely to be multiple future Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) by the United States in the South China Sea. The destroyer USS Lassen sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of seven Spratly features which China has turned into artificial islands. The event underscores US commitment to maintaining an open global system with global commons that are free for all to use.


THE USS LASSEN’s move on 27 October 2015 to sail within 12 nautical miles of the Subi Reef in the disputed waters of the South China Sea is neither the first, nor the last, of what is known as Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) by the United States. In so doing, Washington is signaling that the open, 21st century global system that allows unprecedented prosperity for all is enabled by important rules and norms, including international maritime law. These must be upheld, with no political constraints.

Unlike rocks or islands, under international law, low-tide elevations (LTEs)—features naturally below water at high tide, such as Subi Reef—are not entitled to 12 nautical miles’ territorial waters or airspace. Rather, beyond a 500-metre safety zone, all high seas freedoms apply. Foreign ships and aircraft are free to operate at will without consultation or permission, as USS Lassen has just done. …