The Pentagon is planning to increase naval patrols in the South China Sea, setting a schedule for the first time that would challenge China's maritime claims, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
The Pacific Command plan calls for freedom-of-navigation operations — known as "fonops" in military parlance — two to three times over the next few months.
The schedule marks a departure from the ad hoc approach that's been the norm, the Journal reported, citing unnamed U.S. officials.
There have been three patrols so far under President Donald Trump; there were a total of four during the administration of former President Barack Obama, the Journal reported.
Officials declined to disclose where and when the upcoming fonops would occur.
According to the Journal, some patrols may use not only Navy warships but military aircraft as well; on Aug. 10, the USS John McCain and an air component were used around Mischief Reef — one of seven fortified artificial islands that Beijing has built in the past three years in the disputed Spratlys archipelago.
The Journal reported two P-8 Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft also flew above the McCain in a part of the operation — a fact that hadn’t been previously disclosed. More navigation patrols using warships likely now will include aircraft overhead, the unnamed U.S. officials told the Journal.
Countries in the region have welcomed the more unhesitating Pentagon approach under Trump, Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, and a former consultant to the Pentagon and State Department, told the Journal.
"I think there has already been a positive reaction from the region that we see in the aftermath of the three fonops we’ve seen so far," she said.
She said the Obama administration had been "too risk averse" when it came to freedom-of-navigation patrols.
"We need to conduct fonops on a regular and consistent way that sends a signal about our unwillingness to accept excessive maritime claims, to challenge those claims, and to underscore that our operations in the South China Sea are no different in other parts of the globe,” she told the Journal.
A former Obama administration official agreed, but said there needs to be a broader strategy, too.
"I think regularized fonops are a good idea," David Shear, an assistant secretary of defense at the Pentagon under Obama told the Journal.
"I think they should be conducted in the context of a broader South China Sea and regional strategy, and it's not clear to me that this administration has devised a strategy for the South China Sea or the region, so I'm not sure what purpose the fonops serve outside of that context."
The added military pressure on China comes while the United States is looking for greater cooperation from Beijing in reining in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile program, the Journal noted.
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