Navy Times story makes waves: referenced by CNN and WaPo reports and WSJ editorial
Navy Times’ story on the White House’s efforts to limit comment on the South China Sea story was recently mentioned by CNN and Washington Post reports. The Wall Street Journal also referenced the same story in an editorial just before Secretary Ash Carter’s visit to the Philippines last week. The editorial is pasted below.
Read the full CNN story.
Read the full Washington Post story.
Team Obama at Sea
The U.S. sends mixed signals to China and its Pacific allies.
As U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter begins a tour of the Philippines Wednesday, China is threatening to build an artificial island within missile range of Manila. Mr. Carter’s challenge is to deliver a more credible message of deterrence than the Obama Administration has so far.
In a Friday speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, the Pentagon chief touted several valuable initiatives, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, new weapon systems and deeper ties with India and other regional powers. He also promised an “ironclad” commitment to the Philippines.
But he refused to say that China has broken its pledge not to “militarize” the Spratly Islands. “China is one of many claimants to various features throughout the region, many of which have taken steps that we oppose, namely militarization,” he said before noting that China has “outstripped” the rest. China’s behavior “disquiets the region” but “won’t affect our operations,” he said. Yet U.S. Pacific Commander Admiral Harry Harris warned last year that Beijing could take “de facto control of the South China Sea in any scenario short of war.”
Mr. Carter also said nothing about Scarborough Shoal, which has dominated regional concern since Chinese survey ships were seen there last month possibly preparing to build another artificial island. A base at Scarborough, 120 miles off the Philippine island of Luzon, would help Beijing threaten Manila, monitor Philippine and U.S. forces at Subic Bay and control the South China Sea’s central shipping lanes. Beijing seized Scarborough from Philippine control four years ago, violating a mutual-withdrawal agreement brokered by the U.S.
Mr. Carter’s muted rhetoric is consistent with the Navy Times account last week of White House efforts to limit comment on the South China Sea, reportedly including a “gag order” to military commanders before Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Washington for the recent nuclear summit. Officials have denied the reports, but last year the Administration delayed sending a “freedom of navigation” patrol by China’s artificial islands until after a state visit by Mr. Xi.
The Administration has touted its freedom of navigation patrols in waters claimed by Beijing, though two patrols in six months isn’t enough. The U.S. has treated both as “innocent passage,” meaning the patrolling ships turned off their radar and grounded their aircraft, moves that typically signal recognition of another country’s territorial waters—exactly the wrong message to send concerning China’s illegal island outposts. Asked about this at Friday’s speech, Mr. Carter mostly ducked.
More urgent than the next Navy patrol is noting publicly that the U.S. is treaty-bound to respond to an attack on Philippine “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.” U.S. leaders have avoided this language, likely out of fear that Philippine forces could draw the U.S. into a hot conflict, but the defense treaty has been in force for decades. The U.S. is obligated to respond to any unprovoked attack on its ally around Scarborough Shoal, Second Thomas Shoal or elsewhere. The value of saying so is to clarify to China that the U.S. isn’t ducking its responsibility.
On a 2014 trip to Asia, President Obama clarified that the U.S.-Japan defense treaty covers the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Beijing eased its presence in the area. But on the same trip Mr. Obama signaled that the Spratly Islands aren’t covered by the U.S.-Philippine treaty. China has since built and militarized artificial islands across the Spratlys. If the U.S. wants to prevent the same from happening to Scarborough Shoal, vague promises of “ironclad” commitment aren’t enough.