On December 16, The New York Times reported that a “U.S Admiral Assails China’s ‘Unilateral’ Actions at Sea.” (The headline has been changed for the online version of the article.) While the admiral did not mention China by name, there was no doubt about which nation he was charging with interfering in the freedom of navigation in the region by diverting ships that were traveling too close to the artificial islands recently built by China. The admiral also stated that China was subjecting commercial and military operations in the area to various warnings, and that fishermen – who been fishing in the region for generations – have been intimidated. The tone of the speech, the Times reports, was “tougher” than previous ones. When the admiral was asked for specific examples of such actions by China, his staff did not provide any, and stated that these needed to be researched. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that neither the White House nor the State Department’s recent comments on China included such allegations or struck a similar tone in referring to China. Indeed, they instead made much of U.S.-China cooperation in achieving an historic agreement on climate change in China.
On October 27, the USS Lassen sailed through waters claimed by China in the vicinity of Subi Reef, in order to demonstrate that the United States does not recognize China-imposed limits on the freedom of navigation. China protested that the United States ought to have obtained permission before sailing the USS Lassen through a 12-nautical-mile radius of Subi Reef and that doing so endangered Chinese personnel. A few days later, Defense Secretary Ash Carter was on the USS Theodore Roosevelt as it sailed about 70 miles northwest of Borneo. China considered this move to be highly provocative. The Pentagon stated that its objective in conducting this and other freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) was to “protect the rights, freedoms, and lawful uses of the sea and airspace guaranteed to all nations under international law.” It also stated that more such FONOPs would be forthcoming where needed to underline the United States’ and other nations’ right to move freely through international waters. It seems these moves were neither considered nor approved by the White House.
Indeed, following these maneuvers by the U.S. Navy, the White House instructed the Pentagon to refrain from even publicly discussing these assertions – and none followed. When Carter was questioned by the Senate Armed Services Committee about the situation, he found himself in the awkward position of having to answer Congressional questions – and the White House instructions, aimed at not provoking China any further. Ash finally stated that “What you read in the newspaper is accurate, but I don’t want to say more than that.”
In early November 2015, U.S. President Barack Obama again came under considerable pressure from Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as various public figures, to do more to defeat ISIS. (Obama is known to have long and strongly resisted allowing the United States to be dragged into another land war in the Middle East.) In response, Obama authorized a small increase in the U.S. commitment to the region. He approved the deployment of 50 additional special operations troops to Syria. On December 1, Secretary Carter testified before Congress that the United States would additionally send a “specialized expeditionary targeting force” of special operations troops to Iraq and Syria. A number of members of Congress expressed surprise at Carter’s announcement, presumably because it was unexpected. On December 9, 2015, Carter further stated that the United States was prepared to use attack helicopters and additional resources to “assist the Iraqi army.” Shortly thereafter the White House announced that Obama had not yet authorized the developments. (The State Department added that the Pentagon is “militarizing diplomacy.”)
These recent incidents raise the question of whether the Pentagon is out of step with the White House on these issues or acting without full White House authorization. A much more important case in point is the Pentagon’s decision to prepare for war with China. Initially, the military discussed this major military commitment in the form of the Air-Sea Battle (ASB) concept. It would begin with a major attack on China’s mainland, the location of China’s anti-ship missile launchers. These missiles are preventing the United States from projecting its power in the Asia-Pacific region, since United States power projection relies on the uninhibited movement of American ships, especially aircraft carriers. A study shows that this concept was never properly reviewed nor authorized by the White House. When ASB came in for considerable criticism, the Pentagon changed its name to the Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons – which attracts much less attention than an Air-Sea Battle plan. Moreover, much of it is now classified.
One might say that Obama is too reluctant to use force, that he should not have withdrawn American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, that he should have done much more much earlier in Syria, and stand up to Russia and China. However, none of this reluctance to fight, shared by many Americans, tired of the failing wars in the Middle East, justifies the Pentagon reacting differently to China’s moves than the White House calls for.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail with the subject line “Subscribe” to [email protected].