Freedom of navigation operations rose in 2021, but fewer were near China

The U.S. military conducted so-called “freedom of navigation” operations, or FONOPs, against more excessive maritime claims by more countries in fiscal 2021 than it did the year before, according to the Pentagon’s annual report on such missions.

And while China has the most challenged territorial claims in the new report, released by the Pentagon Friday, U.S. forces conducted FONOPs against five such claims in fiscal 2021, down from seven the year before.

In all, U.S. forces challenged 37 excessive claims by 26 countries that year, up from 28 such claims by 19 countries in fiscal 2020.

China’s territorial claims in the South and East China seas dominated the FONOP list, but such actions were also taken against two claims each by Russia and Iran, according to the report.

Excessive claims by longtime U.S. allies such as India, Italy, Japan, and Korea were also challenged.

FONOPs can be waged by Navy ships that transit through international waters to back up their open nature, but the Freedom of Navigation Program can also involve the State Department protesting excessive maritime claims while advocating for countries to follow international law.

Friday’s report does not make clear which challenges were pursued diplomatically or militarily.

While the Pentagon releases the number of claims and countries that lead to U.S. FONOPs, it does not make public precisely how many FONOPs are undertaken in a given year.

Most are conducted by Navy ships to challenge claims on waters that are international by law.

Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at

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