Admiral Harry Harris, the head of US Pacific Command, is not happy with the way the Obama Administration is handling the situation in the South China Sea.
They are taking the least confrontational path with China, experts say, but ironically that is creating an environment where conflict is more likely.
“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.
Experts say with just nine months left in office, the Obama administration is looking to work with China on several different issues from nuclear non-proliferation to an ambitious trade agenda and would prefer “not to rock the South China Sea boat.”
Leading up to last week’s high-level global Nuclear Summit in Washington, National Security Adviser Susan Rice imposed a gag order on military leaders over the disputed South China Sea. Defense officials say the order was intended to give Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping “maximum political maneuvering space” during their one-on-one meeting.
Senator John McCain (R-AZ) says, “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.”
This wait-and-see approach could do irreversible damage, Navy officials say, and as McCain pointed out, U.S. allies like Japan and the Philippines, are tired of being bullied.
What military officials are concerned about most in the region is that the status quo has changed and China is moving ahead with plans to build another island atop the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 140 miles off the coast of the Philippines’ capital of Manila.
Chinese missile batteries and air-search radars there would put U.S. forces in the Philippines at risk in a crisis, the Navy Times reports. The militarization of the Scarborough Shoal would give China the ability to hold Manila Bay, Subic Bay and Luzon Strait at risk with coastal defense cruise missiles or track aviation assets moving in or out of the northern Philippines, said one Senate staffer.
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,” the staffer said.
Others are also calling for the U.S. to take a hard line — not just Harris.
Capt. Sean Liedman, a naval flight officer serving as a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations says: “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 believes that the US should take military actions, such as disabling Chinese dredging boats or taking other steps to “impair the land reclamation effort.”
Bryan Clark – former senior aide to the recently retired CNO – says Harris is lobbying for a more assertive freedom of navigation patrols. Critics of the administration’s approach say the lack of a more aggressive response has encouraged China’s continued expansion. The administration argues they are being tough on China with military patrols by the Air Force and Navy and with the negotiation of a rotational presence on bases in the Philippines.
Clark says that the freedom of navigation patrols would make it clear that the Navy does not acknowledge Chinese claims and that the surrounding waters are international. “[Harris] wants to do real [freedom of navigation operations],” Clark said. “He wants to drive through an area and do military operations.”
Freedom of navigation patrols include military operations such as helicopter flights and signals intelligence within 12 miles of Chinese-claimed features.
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