South China Sea Standoff
White House Oscillates on Plans for South China Sea

When asked about reports that Washington had made a decision to send U.S. Navy ships through the 12-mile exclusion zone claimed by China around its reclaimed reefs in the South China Sea, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter sounded unequivocal: “Make no mistake, the United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do around the world, and the South China Sea will not be an exception. We will do that in the time and places of our choosing.”

However, despite reports circulating last week that the decision had been, or was soon to be, approved by the White House, an unnamed Administration official has now indicated that the final decision has not yet been made: “You know, doing the 12 nautical mile challenge is one among a variety of options that we’re considering. We’re waiting for an interagency decision that includes the White House.”

We find ourselves a bit bewildered by this equivocation—or, rather, we would be bewildered if we weren’t so familiar with this Administration’s style. It seems to us that a more judicious White House would either signal its intention to send ships and then quickly send them, or stay silent. Unless the White House simply can’t control its own agency employees from chattering about undecided policy (which would itself be worrisome), it’s odd, to put it mildly, that this White House seems so comfortable sending mixed signals.

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