Although the U.S. Navy has routinely conducted these “freedom of navigation operations”all around the world for decades, the Obama administration put a stop on them in the South China Sea from 2012 to 2015, with only a few in 2016, out of concern for upsetting China.
Under Obama, the Pentagon would send requests for FONOPs to the National Security Council, where they would stall. There was a concern “of doing anything that would cause anybody to get their feathers ruffled,” the official said.
During that time, China began aggressively building up islands and reefs in the South China Sea and increasingly placing military equipment on them, even though the territory is also claimed by Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
Under the new plan, the White House will already be aware of the planned operations so that they will not be “a surprise” every time a request comes up the chain of command, and they will be approved faster than before, the official said.
Having them approved faster will allow the operations to be conducted on a “very routine, very regular” basis, with the benefit of making each operation part of a regular program to keep the waters open, versus a “one-off event.”