Pacific Fleet commander wants to confront China in the South China Sea but White House is balking

Friday, April 08, 2016 by

( The four-star admiral in command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet has been arguing behind closed doors that he’s ready to confront the Chinese navy over its bullying and assertiveness in the South China Sea, but the White House has put up resistance each time, the Navy Times reported earlier this week.

PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris wants the U.S. Navy to take a more confrontational approach to reverse China’s strategic gains in the region, proposing a more robust response to Beijing’s island building that would likely include launching aircraft and conducting operations within 12 miles of those man-made islands – what Harris calls the “Great Wall of Sand” before it extends to within 140 miles of the Philippine capital, sources told the paper.

Harris and other PACOM officials have been pushing, publicly and in private, for months to adopt a more aggressive stance against Chinese expansionism, even accusing Beijing outright in February of militarizing the South China Sea.

However, the Obama administration – with only nine months in office remaining – is instead choosing to pursue cooperation with China on a number of fronts, from nuclear non-proliferation to a wider, more ambitious trade agenda and as such would prefer to avoid any increase in tensions in the SCS, experts noted. The White House has even gone to the extent of muzzling Harris and other military leaders in advance of an upcoming security summit.

“They want to get out of office with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of cooperation with China,” Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and defense strategy analyst with the Center for a New American Security, told the Navy Times.

The administration has sought to stifle Harris’ rhetoric, along with other military leaders who have been attempting to sound the alarm about China’s growing militarism in one of the most vital trade routes in the world. The White House has largely watched as Beijing works to solidify outsized sovereignty claims to most of the South China Sea.

Undoubtedly acting on the orders of President Obama, National Security Advisor Susan Rice has imposed a gag order on military leaders regarding the dispute over South China Sea claims in the weeks leading up to last week’s high-level nuclear summit, two defense officials with knowledge of the situation told the Navy Times on condition of anonymity.

Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the summit in Washington, D.C., and met privately with Obama.

The gag order was included in notes from a March 18 meeting of the National Security Council, and it included a request from Rice to tone down public comments on China’s recent moves in the region, Navy Times reported, quoting one defense official familiar with the meeting.


In issuing her order, Rice sought to give her boss and Xi “maximum political maneuvering space” during their one-on-one meeting at the summit, which was held March 31-April1.

“Sometimes it’s OK to talk about the facts and point out what China is doing, and other times it’s not,” the official familiar with the memo said.  “Meanwhile, the Chinese have been absolutely consistent in their messaging.”

The order has had a “chilling effect” within the Defense Department and has served to discourage forthright public discussion, officials noted, and has extended beyond the nuclear summit. Sources told the Navy Times that push-back from the NSC has become normal in instances where U.S. leaders have said things that baited the Chinese into taking hardline positions.

“Military leaders interpreted this as an order to stay silent on China’s assertive moves to control most of the South China Sea, said both defense officials, prompting concern that the paltry U.S. response may embolden the Chinese and worry U.S. allies in the region, like Japan and the Philippines, who feel bullied,” the Navy Times reported.

China has been building islands and airstrips atop reclaimed reefs and outcroppings in the Spratly Islands, an area believed to be rich in natural resources but which are claimed, in part, by several other nations including the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia.

Reuters reported that Xi told Obama during their meeting that China would not accept freedom of navigation as an excuse to violate its sovereignty, after news broke that the U.S. would be sending another warship near a South China Sea outpost claimed by Beijing as sovereign territory.

“Our long-standing position is unchanged – we do not take a position on competing sovereignty claims to naturally formed land features in the South China Sea,” a senior Obama administration official told Reuters.


“We routinely conduct such operations throughout the world to challenge maritime claims that would unlawfully restrict rights and freedoms provided in international law. This applies to the South China Sea as well,” said the official.

Critics of the administration’s “wait and see” approach say it is only emboldening the Chinese, who show no signs of pulling back or slowing their island reclamation projects.

“The White House’s aversion to risk has resulted in an indecisive policy that has failed to deter China’s pursuit of maritime hegemony while confusing and alarming our regional allies and partners,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement to Navy Times. “China’s increasingly coercive challenge to the rules-based international order must be met with a determined response that demonstrates America’s resolve and reassures the region of our commitment.”

Evidence and intelligence indicates that China is preparing to build another man-made island on the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll that is only 140 miles off the coast of the Philippine capital of Manila, and well within that country’s 200-mile economic exclusion zone, thereby extending China’s clams.

If Beijing were to deploy missile batteries and air-defense radars on the atoll – as it has on other outcroppings in the South China Sea – it would put U.S. forces in the Philippines within range during a crisis.

See also:

Navy Times

Reuters is part of the USA Features Media network.

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