The U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific is arguing behind closed doors for a more confrontational approach to counter and reverse China’s strategic gains in the South China Sea, appeals that have met resistance from the White House at nearly every turn.
Adm. Harry Harris is proposing a muscular U.S. response to China’s island-building that may include launching aircraft and conducting military operations within 12 miles of these man-made islands, as part of an effort to stop what he has called the “Great Wall of Sand” before it extends within 140 miles from the Philippines’ capital, sources say.
Harris and his U.S. Pacific Command have been waging a persistent campaign in public and in private over the past several months to raise the profile of China’s land grab, accusing China outright in February of militarizing the South China Sea.
But the Obama administration, with just nine months left in office, is looking to work with China on a host of other issues from nuclear non-proliferation to an ambitious trade agenda, experts say, and would prefer not to rock the South China Sea boat, even going so far as to muzzle Harris and other military leaders in the run-up to a security summit.
“They want to get out of office with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of cooperation with China,” said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and defense strategy analyst with the Center for a New American Security.
The White House has sought to tamp down on rhetoric from Harris and other military leaders, who are warning that China is consolidating its gains to solidify sovereignty claims to most of the South China Sea.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice imposed a gag order on military leaders over the disputed South China Sea in the weeks running up to the last week’s high-level nuclear summit, according to two defense officials who asked for anonymity to discuss policy deliberations. China’s president, Xi Jinping, attended the summit, held in Washington, and met privately with President Obama.
The order was part of the notes from a March 18 National Security Council meeting and included a request from Rice to avoid public comments on China’s recent actions in the South China Sea, said a defense official familiar with the meeting readout.
In issuing the gag order, Rice intended to give Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping “maximum political maneuvering space” during their one-on-one meeting during the global Nuclear Summit held March 31 through April 1, the official said.
“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 NSC dictum has had a “chilling effect” within the Pentagon that discouraged leaders from talking publicly about the South China Sea at all, even beyond the presidential summit, according to a second defense official familiar with operational planning. Push-back from the NSC has become normal in cases where it thinks leaders have crossed the line into baiting the Chinese into hard-line positions, sources said.
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.
China, which has been constructing islands and airstrips atop reefs and rocky outcroppings in the Spratly Islands, sees the South China Sea as Chinese territory. President Xi told Obama during their meeting at the nuclear summit that China would not accept any behavior in the disguise of freedom of navigation that violates its sovereignty, according to a Reuters report. The two world leaders did agree to work together on nuclear and cyber security issues.
Experts say administrations often direct military leaders to tone down their rhetoric ahead of major talks, but the current directive comes at a difficult juncture. U.S. leaders are struggling to find an effective approach to stopping the island-building without triggering a confrontation.
The NSC frequently takes top-down control to send a coherent message, said Bryan Clark a former senior aide to Adm. Jon Greenert, the recently retired chief of naval operations. While serving as Greenert’s aide, Clark said the NSC regularly vetted the former CNO’s statements on China and the South China Sea.
Critics say the administration’s wait-and-see approach to the South China Sea has failed, with the island-dredging continuing in full force.
“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.”
When presented with the findings of this article, Harris declined to comment through a spokesperson. A spokesman for the chief of naval operations had no comment when asked about Harris’ proposals and whether the CNO was supporting them.
An administration official said the Navy’s operations in the South China Sea are routine and that the administration often seeks to coordinate its message.
“While we’re not going to characterize the results of deliberative meetings, it’s no secret that we coordinate messaging across the inter-agency-on issues related to China as well as every other priority under the sun,” the official said.
The gag order has had at least one intended effect. The amphibious assault ship Boxer and the dock landing ship Harpers Ferry, both carrying the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, steamed through the South China Sea in late March to little fanfare.
‘The status quo has changed’
Meanwhile evidence is mounting that China aims to build another island atop the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 140 miles off the coast of the Philippines’ capital of Manila and well within the Philippines’ 200-mile economic exclusion zone, that would extend China’s claims. Chinese missile batteries and air-search radars there would put U.S. forces in the Philippines at risk in a crisis.
Harris and PACOM officials have been lobbying the National Security Council, Capitol Hill and Pentagon leaders to send a clear message that they won’t tolerate continued bullying of neighbors. Part of the approach includes more aggressive, frequent and close patrols of China’s artificial islands, Navy Times has learned.
“When it comes to the South China Sea, I think the largest military concern for [U.S.] Pacific Command is what operational situation will be left to the next commander or the commander after that,” said a Senate staffer familiar with the issues in the South China Sea. “The status quo is clearly being changed. Militarization at Scarborough Shoal would give [China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy] the ability to hold Subic Bay, Manila Bay, and the Luzon Strait at risk with coastal defense cruise missiles or track aviation assets moving in or out of the northern Philippines.”
The administration is negotiating rotational force presence in the Philippines that would put the U.S. in a position to counter China’s moves in the region but the focus on the big picture isn’t changing the China’s gains in the here and now, the staffer said.
“Force posture agreements and presence operations are important, but the administration has yet to develop a deterrence package that actually convinced Beijing that going further on some of these strategic-level issues like Scarborough … is not worth the costs.”
Stepped-up patrols and of the South China Sea like the one conducted by the carrier John C. Stennis and her escorts in early March are part of the PACOM response to China, but actual freedom of navigation patrols in close proximity to China’s islands must be authorized by the White House.
The patrols to date have been confusing, critics argue, because they have been conducted under the right of innocent passage. For example, the destroyer Lassen’s October transit within 12 nautical miles of Chinese man-made islands in the disputed Spratly Islands chain, was conducted in accordance with innocent passage rights. Some officials saw that as tacit acknowledgment that China did in fact own the islands and were entitled to a 12-mile territorial sea around them.
During innocent passage, warships are not supposed to fly aircraft, light off anti-air systems or shoot guns — just proceed expeditiously from point “A” to point “B.” All those activities are fair game in international waters.
The lack of a more aggressive response has only encouraged continued expansion, critics say, including the new Scarborough Shoal project, which China seized from the Philippines in 2012.
The Lassen was the first U.S. warship to pass within 12 miles of China’s man-made islands in three years and was followed by the destroyer Curtis Wilbur’s patrol of the disputed Paracel Islands in January. But if the goal of those patrols was to stop China from constructing man-made islands, it has clearly failed, which was noted last month by the U.S. military’s top officer.
“In the South China Sea, Chinese activity is destabilizing and could pose a threat to commercial trade routes,” Marine Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said at a March 29 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And while our exercise of freedom of navigation provides some assurance to our allies and partners, it hasn’t stopped the Chinese from developing military capabilities in the South China Sea, to include on territories where there is a contested claim of sovereignty.”
Administration officials say they’ve been tough on China’s claims, supporting military patrols by U.S. Air Force bombers and Navy ships, as well as sending high-tech military assets to the region, including two more destroyers and the sophisticated X-band AN/TPY-2 missile defense radar system. The U.S. is also negotiating rotational presence for U.S. troops on bases in the Philippines, right on China’s doorstep.
“The idea that we are somehow inconsistent or that we are giving China a free pass just isn’t supported by the facts,” said a U.S. official who spoke on background to discuss internal deliberations.
Harris wants to double down on the close island patrols but conduct them on the assertion they are in international water, sources who spoke to Navy Times said.
Clark, now an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who has followed Harris’s strategy, said he thinks Harris is lobbying for more assertive freedom of navigation patrols that include military operations such as helicopter flights and signals intelligence within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed features. Such patrols, Clark said, would make clear the Navy does not acknowledge Chinese claims and that the surrounding waters are international.
“He wants to do real [freedom of navigation operations],” Clark said. “He wants to drive through an area and do military operations.”
Harris is not the only Navy expert raising alarms. Capt. Sean Liedman, a naval flight officer serving as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, called for the U.S. to take a hard line.
“Failing to prevent the destruction and Chinese occupation of Scarborough Shoal would generate further irreversible environmental damage in the South China Sea — and more importantly, further irreversible damage to the principles of international law,” Liedman wrote in a late March blog post. “It would further consolidate the Chinese annexation and occupation of the maritime features in the South China Sea, which would be essentially irreversible in any scenario short of a major regional conflict.”
Liedman said the Navy should consider taking military actions like disabling Chinese dredging boats to steps to impair the land-reclamation effort.
Failing to stop China’s expansion in the South China Sea into territory also claimed by its neighbors is only heightening the chance of getting into an armed confrontation, said Hendrix, the retired captain.
“The Obama administration has tended to take the least confrontational path but in doing so they created an environment where it’s going to take a major shock to reestablish the international norms in the South China Sea,” he said. “Ironically, they’ve made a situation where conflict is more instead of less likely.”