The White House appears to want to stabilise ties with Beijing in the final months of the Obama administration, Chinese analysts said on Thursday, after a weekend report that Pentagon chiefs had been barred from publicly using “great power competition” in reference to military challenges from China.
The analysts said the US National Security Council’s reported gag order was another sign that Washington intended to ease its tension with Beijing over disputes in the South China Sea.
Sino-US ties will stay stable ‘no matter who is elected’ as US president: China’s Premier Li Keqiang
Citing four sources familiar with a classified directive, the US’ Navy Times, a weekly publication for US naval personnel and their families, reported on Sunday that the NSC ordered Pentagon leaders to strike out the phrase “great power competition” and find something less inflammatory.
The news outlet quoted White House officials as saying the term inaccurately framed the US and China as on a collision course.
China-US relations seem to have been hijacked by the South China Sea issues
But other experts warned that China’s assertiveness in the South and East China seas, including its ship building, artificial islands and expansive claims in the disputed waters, were hostile to US interests, the report said.
Chinese officers and soldiers wave to a Russian fleet during joints drills with Russia off south China’s Guangdong province, September 19. Photo: Xinhua
The Pentagon did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Su Hao, an international relations professor at China Foreign Affairs University, said the rhetoric of US Defence Secretary Ash Carter and other US military leaders often gave the impression that “the US and China are in rivalry and opposition”.
“China-US relations seem to have been hijacked by the South China Sea issues, or by the military, which does not fairly describe the comprehensiveness of the bilateral ties,” Su said.
A Sino-US deal on the South China Sea is difficult, but not impossible
“If US President Barack Obama leaves Sino-US relations in chaos [to his successor], that would not be desirable,” Su said. “The White House must carefully consider how to stabilise relations.”
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said the NSC directive indicated the White House might be worried that the Pentagon’s dramatic take on Chinese military challenges could backfire on US ties with China.
A Sino-US relations expert with a Chinese official think tank said Beijing and Washington had, in a way, reached an agreement that neither would take a steps to trigger direct conflict over the South China Sea.
Neither side wants to escalate tension, preferring talks between civilian officials
For example, he said, the US withdrew its aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis, to Hawaii on July 5, one week before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague rejected Beijing’s claims over the South China Sea.
“China also made some compromises … and it is unlikely it will build an artificial island in the Scarborough Shoal, or set up an air defence identification zone in the South China Sea,” he said. “Neither side wants to escalate tension, preferring talks between civilian officials, or a diplomatic way, to solve the problems.”
A senior U.S. government official in a position to know the details told Peace and Freedom that, “President Obama has decided to ignore international law in the South China Sea.”
Xi Jinping and Barack Obama at the White House, Sept. 25, 2015. We at Peace and Freedom believe that President Xi and President Obama may have made a deal on the South China Sea in secret — so as to avoid a confrontation with the U.S. Congress. We expect the U.S. to slowly but steadily withdraw from Asia if this scenario is allowed to play out.
Gag order issued on South China Sea? Pentagon and top admiral say no way.
President Obama, joined by, from second to left, Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command; Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command; Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Vice President Biden, speaks during a meeting with combatant commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the White House on April 5. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)
By Dan Lamothe
The Washington Post
April 7, 2016
The Obama administration and a four-star admiral have denied that the White House issued a “gag order” on senior U.S. military officials discussing the disputed South China Sea, a politically charged region that is dogging the administration in its last months in office.
The denials came after the independent Navy Times reported Wednesday that national security adviser Susan Rice decided to “muzzle” Adm. Harry Harris, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, and other senior military officials as the Obama administration prepared to host a nuclear summit in Washington last week that included China’s president, Xi Jinping. Rice’s request was designed to give President Obama room to maneuver politically as he met with the Chinese president, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous officials.
But Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Harris have “been able to provide frank and informed counsel to the president and the National Security Council on a host of issues related to the Asia-Pacific area of responsibility.”
[China testing Obama as it expands its influence in Southeast Asia]
“We are confident that counsel has been considered and valued,” Cook said. The Defense Department “fully supports the current maritime strategy in the Pacific and is working to execute that strategy to the best of their ability. We continue to coordinate our communications within the framework of the interagency process in a way that advances that strategy.”
Cook added: “To be clear, there never has been a ‘gag order,’ as described by anonymous officials in the article.”
Harris said in a statement released to The Washington Post that “any assertion that there is a disconnect between U.S. Pacific Command and the White House is simply not true.” He declined to discuss what he has recommended, saying his private counsel to President Obama and Carter during classified deliberations “wouldn’t be worth much if it weren’t private.
“Maintaining that trust is why senior military admirals and generals won’t discuss our counsel in public,” Harris said. “During recent congressional testimony and press engagements in Washington just a few weeks ago, I was very public and candid about my concerns regarding many issues in the Indo-Asia-Pacific to include the fact that China’s militarization of the South China Sea is problematic. So any suggestion that ‘the White House has sought to tamp down’ on my talking about my concerns is patently wrong.”
Harris said that he is satisfied that his concerns and recommendations are “solicited, listened to and considered.”
The president has accepted many of Harris’s recommendations, including resuming freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea a few months ago to demonstrate waterways in that region will be patrolled by the Navy, said one defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the subject.
The issue exposes a couple of nerves for the Obama administration as it closes out its final year in the White House. For one, the previous three Pentagon chiefs have all voiced frustrations with perceived administration micromanagement after leaving office. Those former defense secretaries — Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel — made those points again in an interview with Fox News that aired Wednesday.
The Obama administration also has faced questions this year about how it will handle tensions in the South China Sea, in light of China continuing to add weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, in the region despite protests from U.S. partners such as Taiwan and the Philippines.
Harris and other senior military officials — including Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — have increasingly raised concerns about China’s operations in the South China Sea for months. During congressional testimony in February, Harris said “you have to believe in a flat Earth” to think China’s goal is not to militarize the area and achieve “hegemony in East Asia.”
China has specifically developed capabilities that counter U.S. strengths, including missiles that would help protect against U.S. aircraft, Dunford told the House Appropriations Committee in late February. Beijing’s “rapid military modernization is quickly closing the gap with U.S. military capabilities and is eroding the joint force’s competitive military advantages,” the general said.
The issue is likely to get even more exposure in coming days, as Carter visits the Philippines as part of a trip to Asia. The United States recently signed an agreement that will allow it to regularly use five Philippine bases. The deal led Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying to comment: “The U.S. has talked about militarization in the South China Sea. But can it explain whether its own increased military deployment in the region is equivalent to militarization?”
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While Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton began what was called the “U.S. pivot to Asia.” In this photo, Hillary Clinton talks with then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi. on September 5, 2012. Today Hillary Clinton is running to become the next President of the United States and China’s former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi has been promoted to the number three leadership within the Chinese Communist Party. China seems to be in control of most of the South China Sea and is pressuring all U.S. allies from Japan to Australia to Singapore to ally themselves with China or face consequences. In 2012, Hillary Clinton was a big advocate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). After Donald Trump said the TPP was not a good deal for American workers, Hillary Clinton became against the TPP.