U.S. officials yesterday announced that there would be no more “Freedom of Navigation” drills around disputed atolls in the South China Sea for the rest of the year. The United States sailed a guided missile destroyer within 12 miles of Subi reef in the Spratly island chain—an outcropping that is above water only at low tide, but which Chinese forces have built up into a military outpost—last October, and officials had been planning to do so again this month. No longer, via Reuters:
. . .The Obama administration, which is weighing the risks of raising tensions with Beijing at a time when the United States is focused on the fight against Islamic State, has not approved the next such patrol, said the officials, who asked not to be named.
One official said the next U.S. Navy sail-by was likely to come in January, in what would be the second direct challenge to the territorial limits China effectively claims around seven artificial islands in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.
The Pentagon officially refused to comment.
The apparent discord between the White House and the Pentagon is deeply troubling. With naval officials signaling one thing, and the Administration signaling another, it’s hard to imagine that Beijing is taking the United States very seriously at the moment. It would be one thing if this were the first sign that military commanders aren’t on the same page as their civilian overseers. But it isn’t. Indeed, it really is remarkable that, after seven years in the White House, the President still cannot keep his ducks in line—whether one believes he is right to be cautious or not.