In May, the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. Department of Defense was considering sending Navy surveillance aircraft and vessels within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea, violating what Beijing claims as its territorial waters and airspace. Since then, though the U.S. has made a point of publicizing its patrols in the region – including by inviting a CNN camera crew on board a surveillance operation in May, and having a Pacific Fleet commander on board another flight in July – so far, the U.S. Navy has not publicly admitted to conducting operations within 12 nm of any Chinese-controlled features.
According to a new report from Politico, the delay stems from a disagreement between the White House and the Pentagon over the wisdom of such operations. The crux of the debate is the Pentagon’s view that China’s artificial features, as man-made constructions, are not entitled to a 12 nm territorial zone. By maintaining that distance from those features, military analysts worry that the U.S. is effectively lending credence to China’s attempts to alter the status quo. As U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter put it at the Shangri-La Dialogue, “After all, turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air or maritime transit.”
Meanwhile, detractors in the White House worry that deliberate (and public) U.S. operations within the 12 nm zone would escalate tensions in the volatile region, as China would respond to a perceived violation of its territory. In a worst-case scenario, that could result in a confrontation between U.S. and Chinese military assets, potentially leading to shots fired. Thus, the White House has decided to tread carefully – at least so far. That will become more difficult as opponents of the more cautious strategy make their grievance public.
It’s not only the Pentagon calling for a more robust response – some members of Congress are as well. The Politico report comes after the Senate tried to pin down Admiral John Richardson, the nominee for Chief of Naval Operations, on exactly how the administration would respond to China’s construction and island-building projects in the South China Sea. According to Breaking Defense, Richardson called China’s construction “destabilizing” but would not clarify whether or not the U.S. should respect a 12 nm zone around the artificial islands. Richardson said, “It’s absolutely important that the Navy continue to be present in that region… (but) we do have to respect the legitimately claimed territorial boundaries.”
“Does that mean respecting that?” Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) responded, pointing to a photograph of Fiery Cross Reef, where China has constructed an airstrip over the past year. Richardson replied, “I’d have to at look exactly which of those claims are legitimate… It’s a dynamic situation there.”
Meanwhile, Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Politico that not allowing to Navy to operate within the 12 nautical mile zone is “a dangerous mistake that grants de facto recognition of China’s man-made sovereignty claims.”
Earlier this month, Admiral Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told the Aspen Security Forum that “China’s actions to enforce its claims within the South China Sea could have far reaching consequences for our security and economy.” He also accused China of “essentially creating false sovereignty… by building man-made islands on top of coral reefs, rocks, and shoals.”
Despite this, Harris said that current U.S. practice affords a 12 nm zone to every land feature in the South China Sea. That’s something Harris would apparently like to change. According to Politico, the admiral is, in private, one of the strongest supporters for conducting so-called freedom of navigation operations within the 12 nm zone.
It’s not only the South China Sea where the administration is torn between the desire for a strong response and uncertainty as to how to respond. According to the New York Times, the White House “has determined that it must retaliate against China” for the hacks into the Office of Personnel Management, but “officials have struggled to choose among options that range from largely symbolic responses … to more significant actions.” Again, the question here is how to craft a robust response that will not escalate into conflict by sparking another round of retaliation from China. In the OPM case, as in the South China Sea, it’s the military and intelligence community urging strong U.S. action in the name of deterrence, while the White House remains more cautious, wary of sparking conflict.
For critics, this caution means the U.S. in effect has no response for Chinese aggression. “The administration will tell you have they have a strategy, but ask them in any hearing, ask them in any place, to put it on the record… They will not tell you, because they don’t have it,” Representative Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee, told Breaking Defense.
The question here is one of deterrence. Proponents of a stronger response argue that the U.S. must impose consequences on China’s aggressive actions in order to stop them. But China is also playing the deterrence game, and will impose its own consequences on any U.S. actions in either cyberspace or in the South China Sea. Miscalculate, and a failure of deterrence could end up delivering the same conflict that it is supposed to avoid.