WASHINGTON, -- The U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific is arguing behind closed doors for a more confrontational approach to counter and reverse China’s strategic gains in the South China Sea, appeals that have met resistance from the White House at nearly every turn.
Adm. Harry Harris is proposing a muscular U.S. response to China's island-building that may include launching aircraft and conducting military operations within 12 miles of these man-made islands, as part of an effort to stop what he has called the "Great Wall of Sand" before it extends within 140 miles from the Philippines' capital, sources say.
Harris and his U.S. Pacific Command have been waging a persistent campaign in public and in private over the past several months to raise the profile of China's land grab, accusing China outright in February of militarizing the South China Sea.
But the Obama administration, with just nine months left in office, is looking to work with China on a host of other issues from nuclear non-proliferation to an ambitious trade agenda, experts say, and would prefer not to rock the South China Sea boat, even going so far as to muzzle Harris and other military leaders in the run-up to a security summit.
“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.
The White House has sought to tamp down on rhetoric from Harris and other military leaders, who are warning that China is consolidating its gains to solidify sovereignty claims to most of the South China Sea.
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 order was part of the notes from a March 18 National Security Council meeting and included a request from Rice to avoid public comments on China's recent actions in the South China Sea, said a defense official familiar with the meeting readout.
In issuing the gag order, Rice intended to give Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping "maximum political maneuvering space" during their one-on-one meeting during the global Nuclear Summit held March 31 through April 1, the official said.
“Sometimes it’s OK to talk about the facts and point out what China is doing, and other times it's not,” the official familiar with the memo said. “Meanwhile, the Chinese have been absolutely consistent in their messaging.”
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. 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.
Military leaders interpreted this as an order to stay silent on China's assertive moves to control most of the South China Sea, said both defense officials, prompting concern that the paltry U.S. response may embolden the Chinese and worry U.S. allies in the region, like Japan and the Philippines, who feel bullied.
U.S. Navy Admiral Harry B Harris, left, United States Pacific Command to the Philippines Commander (USPACOM), and Philippine Armed Forces Chief Gen. Hernando Iriberri, salute during welcoming ceremony at the armed forces headquarters at suburban Quezon city northeast of Manila, Philippines Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015.