At the outset, let us stipulate here that there’s nothing scandalous about the president’s inner circle differing with military leaders on national security policy.
Nor is there a scandal in White House officials telling military leaders what they can talk about in public, when it comes to national policy issues.
Those things are within the president’s purview. So the purpose here is not to debate that point. The purpose is to lay out what the difference in policy is.
The bottom line is that the Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, is very concerned about China’s aggressive moves to expand her national territory into the South China Sea. He recognizes it as a major, global-strategic game-changing effort, one that would (my words here) effectively turn the South China Sea from an international seaway into Chinese territory. (He calls it a “Great Wall of sand.”) And he wants to take more robust measures to demonstrate U.S. opposition to that.
The Obama administration doesn’t seem to see it that way. China’s moves alarm everyone in or bordering East Asia, from Russia to Australia to India and all points in between, but Obama has reacted tepidly, when he reacts at all, and doesn’t do anything that actually counters China’s moves.
A “chilling effect”
Now we learn, from a Navy Times report, that in the run-up to Obama’s nuclear summit last week, his administration imposed a gag order on publicly mentioning China’s aggression in the South China Sea. And according to defense officials, the effect of the gag order is bigger than that:
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 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.
The report goes on to say this:
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.
In effect, then, NSC seems to be blaming U.S. military leaders for Chinese aggression in the SCS.
If you looked around, you’d be hard-put to find anything U.S. leaders have done other than tell the truth about China’s illegitimate island-building and fortification projects in the South China Sea. The reason you’re not aware of anything our military leaders have done to provoke China is that they haven’t done anything.
Even the few “freedom of navigation” operations the U.S. Navy has done in the SCS are as unprovocative as they can be. They’re so unprovocative, in fact, that critics like Admiral Harris make this (valid) point: the operations actually function to confirm China’s unfounded maritime claims in the SCS, rather than defying them.
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.
“Innocent passage” is a basis for transit that pertains to a littoral nation’s territorial seas. It isn’t something that applies to the transit of international waters. So observing the constraints of an “innocent passage” transit, as our Navy ships have, can indeed be read as an acknowledgment that the waters in question are in China’s territorial sea.
That’s the very Chinese claim that is invalid under the Law of the Sea, and that threatens free access to the SCS as an international seaway (which UNCLOS is meant to protect). But Obama will allow the U.S. Navy transits only on the “innocent passage” basis.
What Harris reportedly wants to do is transit the international waters of the SCS on the basis that they are, in fact, international waters. This wouldn’t involve making threatening moves at China, although Beijing would claim it did. It would involve doing whatever ships can do without limit in international waters, such as launching fighters from an aircraft carrier.
If anything can discourage China from taking maximum advantage of the Obama administration between now and January 2017, it would be a measure like this, wielded frequently. China would not undo what she has already done to build out her “territory” into the SCS – but she would be likely to suspend further activities, because she was drawing such undesirable countermoves.
The U.S. wouldn’t have to be alone in this campaign. Under our umbrella, everyone from Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and even India and Australia would be prepared to converge on the SCS and make naval demonstrations in international waters.
All the other nations want to keep those waters functionally international, rather than see them become, effectively, a southeastern province of China. China and the other claimants to the reefs and resources of the SCS could and should negotiate mutual agreements on boundaries. But every nation other than China wants the waters to remain accessible to shipping on the “international waters” basis. China is the problem here.
(Note that if the Gulf of Mexico, with an ocean outlet at only one end, is treated as international waters by the United States – which it is – it is perfectly consistent to demand that the South China Sea, which has ocean outlets on both the east and west sides, be treated as international waters by China. China has legitimate claims in the SCS; it’s the excessive claims and the military aggression that are the problem.)
Not one of the measures taken in a series of naval demonstrations would be a casus belli; China would have no legitimate basis for complaint. But her best option would be to hold off on further expansion into the South China Sea. The reason China is being so bold right now is that she’s not getting any serious pushback.
A situation worsening unnecessarily
It will take the election of a new U.S. president (one in particular) to start forcing back the Chinese expansion. Naval demonstrations in the meantime would be an interim measure, with an interim effect. That’s better than nothing.
Without any such pushback, China is now upping the ante on base-building at Scarborough Shoal, very close to the Philippines and only about 120-30 statute miles from the old U.S. military bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base, north of Manila. (Note the date on the report at the link. Other sources made the report on 18 March. It’s reasonable to conclude that the gag order issued by Susan Rice on 18 March was prompted by the statement made by the Chief of Naval Operations about Scarborough Shoal that morning.)
The Navy Times article highlights that Chinese missiles based so close to the Philippines would put U.S. forces there at risk. But don’t forget: those missiles would put the Philippines at risk too. In the long term, Beijing’s objective is to hold both her neighbors and international shipping at risk, so that China can control the whole environment and extort everyone who operates in it — as if, by being in the SCS, they were asking to do business in China.
This is how great land powers think. Russia sees things much the same way along her perimeter. We’re seeing it come to the fore today because of the dramatic recession of U.S. power, which has always been essentially the power of maritime influence rather than land-based, occupation-style control.
Admiral Harris is right. Until we have a president who will repair our increasingly woeful shortfalls in military capabilities, vigorously enforcing freedom of the international seas in Southeast Asia is one of the most focused, highest-payoff things we could do. Economic boundary claims in the South China Sea are not America’s problem, at least not directly. But freedom of the seas very much is, in that global-strategic chokepoint. And the good news is, we wouldn’t have to go it alone. But we do need to exercise leadership.