South China Sea
Top U.S. Commander Frustrated with Obama

Admiral Harry Harris, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific who directs U.S. patrols in the South China Sea, seems pretty frustrated with President Obama. The Navy Times:

The U.S. military’s top commander in the Pacific is arguing behind closed doors for a more confrontational approach to counter and reverse China’s strategic gains in the South China Sea, appeals that have met resistance from the White House at nearly every turn.

Adm. Harry Harris is proposing a muscular U.S. response to China’s island-building that may include launching aircraft and conducting military operations within 12 miles of these man-made islands, as part of an effort to stop what he has called the “Great Wall of Sand” before it extends within 140 miles from the Philippines’ capital, sources say.

Harris and his U.S. Pacific Command have been waging a persistent campaign in public and in private over the past several months to raise the profile of China’s land grab, accusing China outright in February of militarizing the South China Sea.

But the Obama administration, with just nine months left in office, is looking to work with China on a host of other issues from nuclear non-proliferation to an ambitious trade agenda, experts say, and would prefer not to rock the South China Sea boat, even going so far as to muzzle Harris and other military leaders in the run-up to a security summit.

This isn’t the first we’ve heard of major disagreements between the White House and the Pentagon over U.S. Asia policy. Two weeks ago, the well-connected David Ignatius indicated that top Defense officials would like to see the U.S. take a tougher line in the South China Sea. But this Navy Times report is pretty remarkable. It’s difficult not to assume that although Harris’ office declined to comment on-the-record, someone close to the Admiral has been disclosing Defense’s frustrations off-the-record.

It’s easy to see why Defense officials would be exasperated. China is slowing but steadily taking control of one of the world’s critical shipping lanes, and the U.S. President doesn’t want to try harder to stop them because he’s focused on nuclear non-proliferation and non-binding climate agreements. Yes, the United States needs China’s cooperation on many issues. But America has, since the end of World War Two, defended freedom of the seas as a cornerstone of a peaceful world order that has largely benefited the world.

President Obama, the White House keeps saying, is focused on legacy-building in his final year. Well, a Beijing-controlled South China Sea and the embittering of America’s Asia Pacific allies and partners who asked the U.S. to intervene on their behalf would certainly be quite a legacy.

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