mead berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn bayles
South China Sea
U.S. Sends Mixed Signals on South China Sea

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.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    What’s remarkable is the utter lack of confidence the Pentagon has in its Commander-in-Chief.

  • Jim__L

    Our current president is even less competent than George W Bush internationally. In fact, our current president’s foreign policy has pushed a rethink on whether George W Bush was really as strategically incompetent as his detractors claimed.

    • Andrew Allison

      May I suggest that he’s less competent that any President in the history of the Republic. It’s embarrassing that the people elected this dip-sh*t not once, but twice.

      • Boritz

        The Republic could survive almost any President but it can’t stand with this electorate.   Kudos are in order, I suppose, to the masterful job done over the last century on and through the education system.

    • Olinser

      For all his faults Bush had a very clear vision of foreign policy and a plan to get there. Whether you agreed with his vision is certainly up for debate, but nobody had any doubt he had one.

      Obama just doesn’t care and does whatever polls say is popular so he can forget about it and go back to the golf course.

      • Jim__L

        Mostly Bush’s problem was one of execution, although there were a couple of major points he missed that made his strategy unworkable. One was trying to reshape a region on the cheap, though with the Surge he corrected that. Another is the fact that Shiites were seen as a “minority” in Iraq skewed everyone’s idea of how Iraq would behave as a democracy (e.g., orienting towards Iran, aligning against domestic Sunni interests generally instead of just Ba’athism). This isn’t amenable to any kind of surge.

        It would not surprise me if a lot of ISIS recruitment is based on Sunnis who do not feel they have a stake in the new Shiite-oriented Iraqi government.

        At this point I’m thinking that partitioning Iraq might make a certain amount of sense. It’s starting to happen organically at this point, although if we’d had some more influence on the formation of the Sunni portion, ISIS might never have happened.

        Obama’s interests are purely domestic. He’s just not cut out to be chief diplomat or commander in chief.

  • Fred

    it’s hard to imagine that Beijing is taking the United States very seriously at the moment

    Who is?

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    It’s stupid to confront China and give comfort to the Asians China’s belligerence is threatening, until America has milked every advantage it can get out of the Asians. America should be using this window of opportunity to negotiate a very favorable to America, economic and military alliance. Unfortunately Obama is the worst President in American History, and wouldn’t know a “Strategy” if it jumped up and bit him on the ass.

    • Andrew Allison

      While I usually agree with your comments, I must take issue with this one. History tells us that the longer confrontation of totalitarian expansionism is delayed, the worse the outcome.

      • CapitalHawk

        Well, the outcome is worse for some. The delay in confronting Hitler was disastrous for virtually all of the Europeans; for the USA much less so. Arguably, the USA benefitted from the delay in confronting Hitler given that WWII left much of the world in shambles and the USA was not and it was thus able to dominate the world ever since.

        • Andrew Allison

          We agree again. There’s no question that the USA benefited from its delayed entry (into both I and II). But let’s not overlook the terrible price which Europe paid (or, for that matter, the cost to the US of the Cold War)

  • When you elect a fool you get foolish policies and actions.

    • Andrew Allison

      Unless you define a fool as somebody who is irredeemably arrogant, he’s no fool.


    A few days ago General Abrams decided that Sgt. Bergdahl would face a full court martial, not the modified version previously recommended, which would have been less embarrassing to the White House. All of the Secretaries of Defense for this President have come in part to oppose his actions, with Secretary Carter only the latest. Now the Navy is not necessarily following the White Houses’ lead.
    In light of all that has happened in the last few weeks, are parts of the government, perhaps protected by members of the Congress, choosing to follow the White House on only those decisions with which they agree? Is this a visible sign of the crumbling of the President’s position?

    • Jim__L

      If it’s a crumbling of the power of the Executive in this country (particularly when the executive shows itself to be incompetent or unmoored from reality) it has not happened a moment too soon.

  • dwpittelli

    Oh come on! Is the difference between December 2015 and January 2016 really so significant? President Obama has shown a lot of incompetence in his foreign policy (and considerable illiberalism in his domestic policies), but this article makes criticism of him look petty.

    • grichens

      Read the Reuters article. This is not the first delay.

  • submandave

    There is no basis for PRC’s 12-mile claims on man-made structures. The international failure to challenge and ignore these will only result in more PRC constructions and a more bold approach to make the nine-dash line fact. If anyone questions PRC intents or methods one just has to look at the “Scarborough Model.” (

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service