Freedom of navigation patrols

So the United States Navy had a guided missile destroyer cruise through what the Chinese claim as territorial waters around what they call an island of theirs. I suppose a link to the story is unnecessary.

I think this was a very, very stupid and primitive idea - and at the same time utterly predictable.

Here are the reasons why:

First, Chinese history background. Also, this was not all fiction - these patrols existed for real. The United States maintained river gun boats on the Chinese river Yangtze to "protect their interests" (against the Chinese in China!) from 1854  till 1941, and by the latter date we can all tell this mission wasn't given up voluntarily.

USS Penguin (AM-33), part of Yangtze river patrol
I do often get annoyed by how many Americans with interest in military affairs appear to be obsessed about the American Civil War - imagine this passion magnified several times and you get the picture about how the Chinese are aware of how their nation was humiliated, exploited and violated in their sovereignty, partially colonized even, by Caucasians (and later the Japanese as well) for generations. Hong Kong was among the port cities turned into de facto colonies and it was returned as late as 1997, so this is not ancient history to Chinese.

This in combination should suffice for everyone to understand that any move regarding Chinese sovereignty may weigh much more heavily in China than Westerners would assume typically. There was and is no guarantee that the Chinese consider this destroyer cruise as all about some islands, for example. Many Chinese will no doubt interpret it as a more general violation of Chinese sovereignty.

Then there's the extra burden of American hypocrisy as well.
The United states Navy is usually lying when it claims to enforce "freedom of navigation". That's about as sincere as when a recruiter claims service will be "adventurous".
The United States Navy has a proven history of not enforcing freedom of navigation, but of violating freedom of navigation and using "freedom of navigation" as a pretence for provocations if not aggressions.


First World War: Supposedly the United States did not want to tolerate indiscriminate submarine warfare, but they had no substantial problem with tolerating that the Royal Navy stopped even freighters with food as only cargo as part of their naval blockade nor did they protest the British use of submarines or their procedures. All pretence and hypocrisy.

Gulf War 1980-1988: Supposedly the United States Navy escorted tankers to ensure freedom of navigation.
It did not protect Iranian tankers from Iraqi attacks, though. It did exploit the patrol as a pretence to attack Iranian naval units in Iranian territorial waters and the attempted murder of two Iranian F-14 pilots*  which turned out to be a kill of an entire airliner.
The whole action wasn't about freedom of navigation, but about vengeance bullying for the Embassy hostage crisis and it was meant to ensure that the aggressor Iraq would not lose its war of aggression against Iran quickly due to legitimate economic warfare.

Gulf of Sidra: Libya claimed this area as territorial waters in 1973, which was not internationally recognised. That means hardly anything, certainly international shipping was not affected, for any freighter passing that area would either be on a very bad detour or headed to a Libyan port or coming from one. Save for research ships, treasure hunters or sports boats hardly any other unit would have a desire to be in this area without visiting a Libyan port. See for yourself. Still, the U.S. Navy conducted utterly unnecessary "freedom of navigation patrols" in the area and twice provoked deadly clashes which were nothing but the consequences of a bully policy (1981 and 1989).

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The United States Navy and the United States have a history of using "freedom of navigation" as a pretence for bullying, provocation and (at ship level) aggression.

The United States Navy and the United States also participated in the exploitation and humiliation of China for several generations.

The United States (and again, prominently its navy) also clashed with the PR China during the Korean War and are since the famous "Pacific pivot" positioning themselves as a great power opposing and encircling China.
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A United States Navy warship was the most horrible and most ignorant choice for conducting a symbolic "freedom of navigation" cruise through the area. This was utterly  tainted by past hypocrisy and aggressions.

An adequate ship for such a cruise would have been a Brazilian warship, a Mexican warship, or a Turkish warship. These countries did never harm China with imperialistic policies, never used freedom of navigation for a pretence for hostile behaviour and these countries aren't even linked to this behaviour by Commonwealth or even only perception of being "Europeans".

On the other hand, this was an opportunity for the USN to turn "freedom of navigation" into something non-hypocritical. I don't think this was worth it, though. In fact, I don't think this was what they were trying, for the decisionmakers were likely not aware of the track record of hypocrisy - they likely believe in their predecessors' propaganda.

It's also utterly natural for the USN to happily adopt "freedom of navigation" patrols as a mission: Every bureaucracy wants more missions, for this means more funds, more leadership positions, more prestige and more attention. A historian would have been a much better advisor than an admiral for this reason.


*: They knew an F-14 had no anti-ship weapons and the airliner flew no offensive manoeuvres at all - it was attempted twofold murder.

edit 2018: https://www.economist.com/news/christmas-specials/21732706-britain-and-china-see-each-other-through-narcotic-haze-opium-wars-still-shape 

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