US Forces Conducted Fewer 'Freedom of Navigation' Patrols Near China in Fiscal Year 2021: Report

US Forces Conducted Fewer 'Freedom of Navigation' Patrols Near China in Fiscal Year 2021: Report
The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry (DDG 52) conducting underway operations in the South China Sea on April 28, 2020. (Samuel Hardgrove/U.S. Navy/AFP)
Isabel van Brugen

The U.S. military carried out fewer “freedom of navigation operation” patrols near China in fiscal year 2021 than it did the previous year, although the number of missions rose overall, according to a Department of Defense report published on April 1.

The report states that during the period from Oct. 1, 2020, through Sept. 30, 2021, U.S. forces operationally challenged 37 different excessive maritime claims made by 26 different claimants around the world.

It found that China in fiscal year 2021 had the most challenged territorial claims, but the U.S. Navy carried out “freedom of navigation operation” patrols against five claims. In fiscal 2020, U.S. forces conducted patrols against seven such claims.

The U.S. Freedom of Navigation Program was established in 1979 and consists of complementary diplomatic and operational efforts to safeguard lawful commerce and the global mobility of U.S. forces.

“Excessive maritime claims are inconsistent with international law as reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention. They include a variety of restrictions on the exercise of navigation and overflight rights and other freedoms,” the Pentagon said in an April 1 statement.

“Unlawful maritime claims—or incoherent theories of maritime entitlements—pose a threat to the legal foundation of the rules-based international order. If left unchallenged, excessive maritime claims could limit the rights and freedoms enjoyed by every nation.”

The department clarified in its report that its operational challenges are also known as "FON assertions," "FON operations," and "FONOPs."

“The regular and routine execution of these operations supports the longstanding U.S. national interest in freedom of the seas worldwide,” the report reads.

U.S. forces also challenged excessive claims by India, Italy, Japan, and Korea, according to the report.

The department stated that its report illustrates that U.S. FONOPs challenge a wide variety of excessive maritime claims made by allies, partners, and competitors.

“They are not focused on any particular excessive claimant, and they are not executed in response to current events. Rather, their purpose is to reinforce international law peacefully and in a principled, unbiased manner,” the Pentagon stated.

In an incident in January, China's military said its forces followed and warned away a U.S. warship that entered waters near the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.

The Southern Theater Command of the People's Liberation Army stated that the USS Benfold "illegally" sailed into Chinese territorial waters without permission, violating the country's sovereignty and that Chinese naval and air forces tracked the ship.

The U.S. Navy rejected the idea that the USS Benfold was warned away, but appeared to confirm that the ship was operating in the area, saying the mission reflected the U.S. Navy's commitment to defend freedom of navigation.

The Benfold was conducting a freedom of navigation operation "in accordance with international law," according to the statement. The ship then "continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters.”

The U.S. Navy frequently carries out such missions in the South China Sea to challenge Chinese territorial claims.

Reuters contributed to this report.