This article was originally posted Feb. 12 at 12:01 a.m. and has been updated.
U.S. Navy and Pacific Command leaders want to ratchet up potentially provocative operations in the South China Sea by sailing more warships near the increasingly militarized man-made islands that China claims as sovereign territory, according to several Navy officials.
The freedom of navigation operations, also known as FONOPS, could be carried out by ships with the San Diego-based Carl Vinson carrier strike group, which is in the Pacific Ocean heading toward the South China Sea, according to three defense officials who spoke to Navy Times on condition of anonymity to discuss operations in the planning phase.
The military's plans likely call for sailing within 12 nautical miles of China's newly built islands in the Spratly and/or Paracel islands, a move that would amount to a new challenge to Chinese maritime claims there that has raised tensions between Washington and Beijing in the recent past.
The plans are heading up the chain of command for approval by President Donald Trump, and set the stage for a transnational guessing game about what the Trump administration wants its Asia policy to be.
For years, the Obama administration curtailed the Navy's operations around contested areas like the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of uninhabited islands and reefs that China his built up in recent years. China has installed military-grade runways on the islands and could deploy surface-to-air weaponry.
U.S. Navy leaders believe that the FONOPS help clarify rights under international law and secure U.S. influence in the region. China, however, views the U.S. operations there as a provocative challenge to Beijing's effort to claim the constructions as territory and the fishing rights and any oil or natural gas reserves in the surrounding waters.
"The Trump administration has to decide what it wants to achieve," said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
"I doubt it it's possible to compel China to withdraw from its newly built islands in the Spratlys. But the U.S. could develop a strategy aimed at preventing more land reclamation, capping militarization and deterring China from using its new outposts to intimidate and coerce its neighbors," Glaser told Navy Times in an interview.
News of the military's planned FONOPs in 2017 track with reports in the Japanese press that Defense Secretary James Mattis, in closed-door meetings during his recent trip to Asia, assured Japanese officials that the U.S. military was planning an assertive approach towards China in the South China Sea.
'It's what we do'
For years, U.S. military leaders such as Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command, have sought a more aggressive approach towards China in the South China Sea. U.S. Navy officials are quick to point out that the U.S. has been operating there for decades and are maintaining the historic status quo.
But Obama specifically prohibited the Navy from carrying out FONOPS in the South China Sea from 2012 through 2015. During that time, China put into overdrive its land reclamation and military construction projects around those reefs and islands.
Many in the Navy’s leadership think Obama’s policy of caution, intended to avoid unnecessary confrontation with China, made what was once a standard Navy mission seem aggressive.
"What the Navy wants is for them not to be a news story," said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer captain and consultant with the Ferrybridge Group. "The real value in them is that they happen with such frequency that they just become part of the background noise."
"The more it became a big deal, the more it looked like what we were doing was retaliatory or vindictive. It’s not." McGrath said. "It’s what we do. We say, ‘This is international water and we will proudly sail in it, steam in it, or fly over it to protect our right to do so and others’ rights, as well."
Making the point, a Navy official pointed to a recent freedom of navigation operation by the cruiser Port Royal aimed at excessive claims made by Sri Lanka, which demands ships transiting its coast obtain prior permission.
The Port Royal made that transit Jan. 24 under the right of innocent passage, a terms that allows warships to pass through the territorial waters of another country without permission on the condition that the ship not carry out any military operations such as launching helicopters, shooting guns or lighting off any sensitive surveillance equipment.
"FONOPS are a regular, normal and routine occurrence," the Navy official said.
Likewise, Navy officials sought to downplay the San Diego-base Vinson’s return to the region.
"There is nothing new about U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike groups deploying to the western Pacific," said U.S. 3rd Fleet spokesman Cmdr. Ryan Perry.
"Our strike groups have patrolled the Indo-Asia-Pacific regularly and routinely for more than 70 years and will continue to do so. Regional security, stability and prosperity depend on it," Perry said.
It is unclear when Vinson and its strike group will enter the South China Sea.
The group includes the destroyers Wayne E. Meyer and Michael Murphy, and the cruiser Lake Champlain. Joining Vinson is Carrier Air Wing 2, which is composed of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 4; Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 78; Strike Fighter Squadrons 2, 34, 137, and 192; Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron 113; Electronic Attack Squadron 136; and Fleet Logistic Support Squadron 30.
Trump’s campaign last year raised hackles in Beijing by repeatedly accusing China of devaluing its currency to disadvantage U.S. goods in international trade markets, despite evidence that China has actually been doing the opposite. Trump pushed relations to near-crisis levels before his inauguration by taking a phone call from the Taiwanese president, something that no U.S. president or president-elect has done since the 1970s.
Furthermore, Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told lawmakers he’d be open to blockading China from their Spratly Islands claims, a move that would risk direct military confrontation.
But in recent days the temperature has lowered significantly. In a phone call Thursday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump expressed his commitment to America's existing "One China" policy in regards to Taiwan, which does not officially recognize Taiwan as independent from mainland China. Chinese officials were also pleased with a letter from Trump to Xi expressing his desire to have a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship.
Other signs that Trump is seeking a constructive relationship with China include the appointment of Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a friend of Xi’s, as ambassador to China. And Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her daughter also visited the Chinese Embassy in Washington to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
Military power alone, however, is unlikely to resolve the issue in the South China Sea said Zhiqun Zhu, who heads The China Institute at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, where he is an associate professor of political science and international relations.
"I think sending the U.S. carrier group to the South China Sea is symbolic, demonstrating the U.S. resolve to defend its national interests including freedom of navigation," Zhu said. "However, such show of force will not help solve the problem and can only raise tensions in the region.
"Any miscalculation from either side may escalate tensions, which could spin out of control. China is unlikely to cave in no matter what the US military does in the South China Sea. Cooler heads are needed from both sides, not moves to unnecessarily provoke the other side."
The risk of miscalculation was highlighted on Feb. 8 when a Chinese KJ-200 early warning aircraft flew within 1,000 feet of a U.S. Navy P-3C patrol plane over the South China Sea in international airspace over Scarborough Shoal near the Philippines. The Pentagon said the incident was unintentional.
"Trump will find his match in Xi in terms of toughness," Zhu said. "President Xi has become the strongest leader in China in recent decades. He does not have much room for compromise on key foreign policy ... He simply cannot afford to appear weak.
"China is not picking a fight with the U.S. now, so Trump and his advisers have to understand the complexity of the bilateral relationship and avoid taking unwise actions such as starting a trade war that may make them feel good but in the end hurt both countries."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.