The U.S. Department of Defense revealed recently that in 2016 it conducted FONOPs (freedom of navigation operations) in disputed waters near China, Albania, Brazil, Italy, Japan and Malta. The U.S. military (mainly the navy and air force) conducts dozens of these FONOPs each year worldwide. The FONOPs that get the most attention are those involving China, mainly those involving the Paracels and other islands in the South China Sea.
The United States and most major maritime powers consider FONOPs necessary to assure freedom of movement through international waters or air space. In the South China Sea China protests but does not oppose the American warships and aircraft carrying out these FONOPs. These operations are needed to affirm that many of the Chinese claims to the entire South China Sea are invalid that that the right to free passage through China’s EEZ is assured.
By international law (a 1994 treaty), the waters 360 kilometers from land are considered the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), of the nation controlling the nearest land. The EEZ owner can control who fishes there, and extracts natural resources (mostly oil and gas) from the ocean floor. But the EEZ owner cannot prohibit free passage, or the laying of pipelines and communications cables. The American military has been regularly conducting FONOPS each year worldwide since 1983. In that time FONOPs have been conducted in areas involving 22 different nations. Most (13) of these nations are in East or South Asia. This is largely because of the many islands near Philippines and Indonesia as well as the South China Sea.