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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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  • Nevis07

    So it turns out that in honor of President Obama’s legacy, President Xi plans to rename Scarborough Shoal to “大岛奥巴马” (Great Obama Island)?

  • Blackbeard

    Suppose we hypothesize that Obama believes, as most of the academic left believes, that American influence in the world, in the post WW2 era, has been by and large malign. Then logically he would want to reduce that influence, reduce our military strength and weaken our alliances. Wouldn’t that hypothesis explain much of what Obama has done over the last seven years?

    • Nevis07

      The problem with liberal idealists isn’t their ideas, it’s that the world simply isn’t an ideal place and therefore they don’t usually stand up to the test of time. We heard of China’s “peaceful rise” for decades, but when the rubber meets the road, those idealistic words have little underneath them.

      • Krieg Spiel

        Of course the world isn’t an ideal place (nice strawman there, by the way), but to presume neoconservative philosophies are not ideological is equally absurd and even more intellectually dishonest. How well did neocon interventionism work in Iraq or Afghanistan? What of the hard core isolationism of Cuba? If we were honest with ourselves, “neorealism” and neoconservativism have been abject failures ever since the Korean conflict, along with the ineffectiveness of liberal appeasement and disengagement strategies. Sadly instead of new methods of engagement, we have two ineffective and outdated philosophies focused on clubbing each other as America sinks into quicksand.

        • Rick Caird

          What a piece of nonsense, Krieg Spiel. Of course the leftist vision of the world (and Obama’s) is one in which other countries and powers will act as the left expects and hopes them to act. But, they never do and their is never a plan B. If you want to see abject failures, see Iran and the so called agreement and then look at the initiative in Cuba which has been met with nothing but more insults and more demands.

          The realistic approach (what is possibly “neo” about realism?) in Iraq worked until our leftist looking President decided to abandon Iraq in deference to “hope and faith”. If people like you were actually honest, you would see that this there has been nothing but continuing failures in all of the Obama foreign policy decisions, all based on the way the world “should work” rather than a realistic appraisal if how it really works.

  • Anthony

    Leaks, Leaks, then Military Leaks.

    The United states and China are both indispensable pillars of world order. But, “the cultural and political backgrounds of the two sides diverge in important aspects. The American approach to policy is pragmatic; China’s is conceptual. America has never had a powerful threatening neighbor; China has never been without a powerful adversary on its borders. Americans hold that every problem has a solution; Chinese think that each solution is an admission ticket to a new set of problems. Americans seek an outcome responding to immediate circumstances; Chinese concentrate on evolutionary change. Americans outline an agenda of practicable deliverable items; Chinese set out general principles and analyze where they will lead.” To better appreciate China’s position and the South China Sea (and by extension Pacific Region generally), read Christopher K. Johnson’s CSIS report here:

    • Jim__L

      Wait, what?

      Aside from the ephemeral threat from the Mongols and the Japanese, who is this “powerful adversary on its borders”? Tibet? Vietnam? Malaysia? The Philippines? Korea? According to your argument, Germany had a better justification for remilitarizing the Rhineland than China has for its push into the SCS. For the last couple of centuries, and certainly into modern times, the major “adversaries” are trans-oceanic both for the United States and for China, making the “on its borders” argument moot — and giving each an equivalent stake in the peaceful *and above all cooperative* order the United States has forged.

      Arguing that Red Revolutionary China is in favor of evolutionary change is further self-serving Party Congress nonsense. Would a government with any respect for an “evolving” situation crack down on the peaceful development of Christianity within its borders? The situation in Eastern Europe, following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Communism, has been evolving. The situation in China since the Tienanmen Square crackdown – not so much.

      This China-love for its “general principles” and “analyzing” is just sympathetic vibrations from aspiring totalitarian policy wanks like Friedman and Krugman — and their great intellectual forebear, Walter Duranty.

      • Anthony

        Two things: read comprehensive world history before you ask question supposedly learned as an undergrad. 2) read CSIS report. Unlike WigWag and Dan Greene, blog tutorial are not my inclination. I’m done here Jim_L .

        • Tom

          1. I have read comprehensive world history, and Jim’s more right than you are.
          2. For which we are all very thankful.

          • Anthony

            Tom, two things: what’s your point and good for you; 2) you’re beginning to resemble that “home school” (qualification, this is not a disparagement of Home Schooling) respondent you engage @ The Federalist (no need to reply back as you’ve made triviality personal).

          • Tom

            1. Jim was asking a rhetorical question, which you decided to vigorously sneer at.
            2. I’m afraid that I was rather late to the “making triviality personal” party.

          • Anthony

            Tom, let it go, let it go.

          • Tom

            Unfortunately, my name is not Elsa.

          • Anthony

            By whatever name, the sentiment remains, Tom.

          • Jim__L

            Maybe fortunately. Was there any song in that movie that featured anything resembling wisdom or good life advice? Most of them just rationalized extremely bad ideas, from “Summer” on down.

        • Fred

          Blog tutorials are not my inclination. Translation: I make bald assertions that I’m unwilling or unable to defend, so I don’t try to defend them. Given your intellectual limitations, that’s probably wise.

          • Anthony

            Fred, I was reading an essay in “First Things” about a week ago and noticed (in comment section) that a commenter told you to “let it go”. Another stranger Fred who took your writing for what it reveals. That advise comes from a sensible Christian (not one inclined to harass/violate) Fred. Perhaps, he instantly recognizes perfidy. Let it go Fred, let it go. Finally, see Oct. 23, 2015 reply and Apr. 2016 Update (for what it’s worth Fred I read “nothing” of what you write).

          • Fred

            Anything but to the point, eh? Of course your non-responses don’t fool anone about the scope of your intellect, but nice try.

          • Anthony

            With you no “point”! Let it go Fred, let it go.

          • Fred

            You read “nothing” of what I write. Yet you responded specifically to what I wrote. You’re still amazing. I’m telling you, three words, America’s Got Talent.

          • Anthony

            Fred, I read nothing I saw “point”and extrapolated – I look at “nothing” beyond a word or two! Move on Fred and let it go (you’re familiar with Christian phrase: “TROUBLED SOUL”). Keep living Fred ( also,see reply Oct.23, 2014 and Apr. 2016 Update).

          • Fred

            And you did it again!

          • Anthony

            Let it go Fred, let it go. You and I (as I’ve told you for six [6] years now through your virtual harassment) have “nothing” to exchange. TAI and other sites offer you plenty opportunity to spew your venom without attaching to a comment written by another. Ideas matter Fred use yours where they may be read. Stay alive Fred and move on (focus on your “Triggers” and reconciling Faith with ACTION).

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      America’s strategy is to tear down the “Iron Curtain” by luring the Chinese into the American Global Trading System, by allowing them to cheat the American Running Dogs by manipulating their currency and blocking American imports with spurious regulations. The purpose in doing this was to uplift 1 billion Chinese out of abject poverty and squalor (a worthy goal in its own right), and thereby create a large middle class that has been exposed to the superior American Culture, and will take “very unkindly” to the loss of that affluence.

      We are now seeing the culmination of that strategy, as the foreign investors that were responsible for the so called “Chinese Economic Miracle” abandon China for less risky and less costly places. China will now crash and burn, and the Chinese Leadership are terrified they will all be hung from the lampposts. They hope to instigate a foreign war which will generate patriotic political support and so they can blame the economic problems on the foreign devils. But the Chinese people have been exposed to the superior American Culture, and they are unlikely to be very forgiving of the massive incompetence and corruption of China’s leadership.

      The thing about a “Good” strategy is that it doesn’t matter if your opponent knows exactly what you are doing, you still gain an advantage that he can’t stop. Despite all the censorship, and police state monitoring in China, America has uplifted hundreds of millions of Chinese and built expectations of affluence into their minds. They will now do what America wants and throw the Communist Party under the bus. And America Wins.

      • Jim__L

        I…. I love it when a plan comes together?

        • Jacksonian_Libertarian

          LOL, It’s not like it’s conscious, it’s what Walter Russell Mead calls “Special Providence”, and only seems to apply to America. It’s like we fall into a cesspool, and come out smelling like a rose.

          I think it’s because America has the virtue of having mankind’s most superior bleeding edge culture, any other culture which isn’t imitating American culture is automatically at a disadvantage.

      • Anthony

        I won’t write on “what American Strategy” is but I suggest you read listed CSIS report as well as Johnson’s current assessment on strategy in region and not focus on some contested “win”.

        • Jacksonian_Libertarian

          I’m afraid I don’t think much about the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It seems to me they are so far down in the weeds, that they can’t even see the trees, not to mention the forest.

          There is a common military saying, “Captains should study tactics, but Generals MUST study logistics.”. China is so vulnerable to a strategic blockade of its ports, that picking a fight will all the nations sitting on its shipping lines is an act of insanity. China also holds about $4 Trillion in foreign Treasuries, which would all be disavowed in a war. It doesn’t matter a bit if they control the South China Sea if they can’t protect their shipping to the rest of the world. And they can’t even control the South China Sea if America creates an opposing alliance, sinks their “Sand Castles” island bases, and blockades their ports. 40% of China’s economy is dependent on imports and exports, and they are the largest importer of the most critical element of a modern economy – oil. China has been trying to build land routes for trade, but freight trains are much more expensive than ships, and all those Asian nations accessible by land from China are dirt poor with little to trade.

          So I’m thinking this whole South China Sea gambit by the Chinese has a different objective than what is commonly assumed. I think it’s about the Communist Party trying to save their skins and hang on to power. The Chinese economy is crashing and burning, and the middle class that’s been built up over the last 40 years (several hundred million people) is going to blame the Party for their economic pain. Especially as they have enjoyed very swift growth in incomes over the last 40 years and the contrast is going to be very painful, as their dreams are denied them. The traditional way for politicians to save their skins is to start a war, and by waving the bloody shirt, gain patriotic political support, and be able to blame the foreign devils for everything including the huge economic pain. But I think it’s unlikely to work this time, because starting a war over a few useless islands a 1,000 km from China while sacrificing Trillion of Dollars in foreign trade, will be seen for what it is.

          • Anthony

            Military saying our not, wars are fought by men (young generally) not writers. Regarding, CSIS you commented on their material and I referred – your opinion about organization remains yours. Thanks.

          • James_IIa

            Very interesting. The West is probably underestimating China’s military power and overestimating its economic and social stability.

  • James_IIa

    “. . . 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.”

    That’s probably true, and unintentionally ironic, since the president may well turn out to be the master nuclear proliferator of all times.

  • By this and so many other novel and dangerous developments, a complete, fresh international strategic alliance structure is indicated, forged from the common core of three brother nations: USA, Russia and India:

  • stevewfromford

    It’s all just so far away. Why would Obama be concerned with China when he’s happy to cozy up to despots 90 miles off our coast?
    Please don’t bother “the smartest guy in the room” with unimportant details.

  • mikekelley10

    Any ally stupid enough to rely on a country that would elect and re-elect Obama is crazy. Wait until they get a load of Hillary or Bernie.

  • White Knight Leo

    And who is surprised that Obama would be willing to risk national prerogatives for the sake of his personal legacy? Bueller?

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