US Military Operations Challenging China's Territorial Claims Peaked Under Trump

Cmdr. Joseph Gunta USS John S. McCain
Cmdr. Joseph Gunta, the executive officer of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) observes a surface contact from the bridge wing while the ship is conducting routine underway operations, Feb. 05, 2021. (Markus Castaneda/U.S. Navy)

The U.S. carried out more freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea toward the end of Donald Trump's presidency than any other year on record.

There were 10 challenges to territorial claims in the South China Sea between October 2019 and September 2020, said John Supple, a Defense Department spokesman at the Pentagon. That included six specifically aimed at challenging China's "excessive maritime claims" in the area, a new Pentagon report shows.

The U.S. carried out eight freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea in fiscal 2019, Supple said. Navy ships also sailed through the Taiwan Strait 13 times in 2020, according to The Associated Press, which noted that it was the highest number of transits there in at least 14 years.

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The U.S. conducts hundreds of freedom-of-navigation operations, known as FONOPs, across the globe annually, with ships or aircraft passing through international waters or airspace to challenge assumptions that the area belongs to any one country. But as tensions continue to build between Washington and Beijing, there has been an uptick in the operations off China's coast, where the country has made sweeping territorial claims and built artificial islands with airstrips and military structures.

"The United States remains focused on the importance of freedom of navigation to preserving the rules-based international order," Supple said.

The Trump administration ushered in a host of tough policies aimed at China, starting with tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Chinese imports. The 2018 National Defense Strategy centered largely around threats from China; that same year, the Defense Department also changed the name of U.S. Pacific Command to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command -- a move meant to counter China's influence in the region.

China isn't the only country making maritime claims in the South China Sea though, which has led to rising tensions in the region. The U.S. military also hit back at excessive claims made by Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam through freedom-of-navigation operations there, Pentagon data shows.

The U.S. has continued carrying out FONOPs in the South China Sea in fiscal 2021, which began in October. China claimed in December that it used naval and air assets to "expel" a U.S. Navy destroyer from waters near the Spratly Islands -- a claim Navy officials denied.

"The United States will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," a U.S. 7th Fleet spokesman said at the time.

About a week later, the destroyers McCain and Curtis Wilbur transited the Taiwan Strait "in accordance with international law," Navy officials announced.

The destroyer Russell then carried out a FONOP near the Spratly Islands in February to challenge territorial claims by China, Vietnam and Taiwan.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

Related: No, China Did Not 'Expel' a US Warship from its Territory, Navy Says

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