China and the West
Mixed US Messages in the S. China Sea

The Pentagon has been sending mixed messages about whether it recently conducted a full freedom of navigation operation or a less assertive “innocent passage” operation in the South China Sea. Reuters reports:

A U.S. official speaking to Reuters last week described the patrols as an “innocent passage” operation, but later said that had been a mistake.

Pentagon spokesman Captain Jeff Davis insisted to reporters on Wednesday that the patrol was not an “innocent passage.” Pressed further on the issue on Thursday, he declined to explicitly restate that position or elaborate.

According to Hostra University law professor Julian Ku, an “innocent passage” operation by the U.S. would implicitly recognize that “China is entitled to a 12 nm (nautical mile) territorial sea around its artificial island on Subi Reef” and thus undermine the whole point of the operation.

Far be it from us to parse out technical details about naval maneuvers. It’s the messy messaging that concerns us. After months of waffling about whether to conduct the operation at all, the White House appeared to finally have made a decision. Now, the picture looks blurry again. The whole point of sailing within twelve miles of the artificial islands was to send a clear signal, so that signal had better be clear. Even if the U.S. did in fact conduct a complete freedom of navigation operation, stories like these only make the operation less effective.

Almost seven years into the current administration, you’d think the president would know how to make sure his officials are on the same page. The president and his advisors might disagree about the best course of action, but they would eventually come to work in concert. Yet that doesn’t appear to be how this administration operates.

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