President Barack Obama’s National Security Council has placed a gag order on military officials who want to challenge China over its aggressive posturing in the South China Sea.
Navy Adm. Harry Harris believes in pioneering a much stronger confrontation with China, but the Obama administration has struck down his proposals repeatedly, preferring the tactic of negotiations and talks over action, Navy Times reports.
What Harris wants is to conduct military operations likely involving ships and aircraft within 12 nautical miles of artificial islands in the South China Sea, which the Chinese government continues to expand. Harris’ idea is to halt growth, so that these islands don’t come within 140 miles of the Philippines’ capital city, Manila.
This saber rattling is making the Obama administration rather uncomfortable, especially since it’s desperately trying to negotiate with China on a wide-range of issues and does not want Harris — or others in military leadership who support more aggressive plans — to disrupt the process.
“They want to get out of office with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of cooperation with China,” retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix told Navy Times.
Two defense officials also told Navy Times that Susan Rice, national security adviser, placed a gag order on military officials before the nuclear summit took place last Thursday, which received attendance from China’s president Xi Jinping.
The idea of the gag order was to allow Obama to negotiate privately with Jinping without being hampered by heated rhetoric from military officials.
But this heated rhetoric has not taken place in a vacuum. It functions mostly as a response to China’s construction and expansion of artificial islands, as well as its constant misleading observers about the purpose of the islands. While initially claiming that the islands were purely for civilian purposes, China has since militarized these outposts and declared U.S. freedom of navigation exercises as nothing more than a violation of China’s sovereignty.
Additionally, despite demands from Defense Secretary Ash Carter that land reclamation in the region needs to halt completely, it appears as though China is set to begin construction efforts over the Scarborough Shoal. This location is just 140 miles from Manila. If China again decides to militarize the area, it would create a security crisis for the Philippines.
Meanwhile, military officials argue that even existing freedom of navigation efforts have clearly not been enough to dissuade the Chinese.
“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 of Staff, said March 29, according to Navy Times. “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.”
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