The U.S. naval challenge to China’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea this week came after months of frustration within the Pentagon at what some defense officials saw as unnecessary delays by the White House and State Department in approving the mission.
As early as mid-May, the Pentagon was considering sending military aircraft and ships to assert the principle of freedom of navigation around China’s artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago after Defense Secretary Ash Carter requested options to respond to their rapid construction.
That patrol eventually took place on Tuesday when the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, triggering an angry rebuke from China and threatening to ratchet up tensions between the world’s two biggest economies.
An intense, prolonged internal U.S. debate over the patrol revealed by Reuters’ reporting appears to contradict Washington’s insistence that it was simply another routine freedom-of-navigation operation.
The months leading up to the patrol allowed Beijing to harden its stance and, according to some U.S. officials and security experts, blew the operation out of proportion.
Washington’s caution also caused disquiet among some military officials in Japan and the Philippines, both U.S. security allies, feeding concerns that China’s ambitions in the South China Sea would go unchecked.
The Pentagon and U.S. military officials had been ready for months to carry out patrols, but ran into “repeated stalling” from the White House and State Department, said one U.S. defense official, who requested anonymity.
Both wanted to avoid giving the appearance that any operation was in response to other events, the official said, such as the breach of 21 million U.S. personnel records that has been linked to hackers in China. China has denied involvement in the attack.
“The concern was that, if we looked like we were responding to something the Chinese had done, it would undermine our assertion that this is a matter of international law, and our rights to navigate the seas,” said the official.
The State Department did not respond officially to queries on why the mission took so long. The White House declined official comment on the criticism.
Pressure for action was growing at a sensitive time in U.S.-China relations, as major powers moved closer to agreeing a nuclear deal with Iran and as Washington prepared for a state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping in September.
By late September, a consensus had been reached to go ahead with the patrol, despite Xi’s assertion in Washington that China had “no intention” to militarize the islands.
Obama, who has sought to avoid confrontations with U.S. rivals and reduce direct U.S. involvement in wars, had to carefully weigh the need to take action with the risks of sparking an unintentional armed conflict that could have severe diplomatic and economic consequences.
Under his “pivot” to Asia, 60 percent of the U.S. Navy’s assets will be deployed in the Pacific region by 2020, in a challenge to China’s rapidly growing maritime power and ambitions.
Another U.S. official said a key reason for the lengthy internal deliberations was to be sure that every possible measure was being taken to minimize the risk of a U.S.-China military confrontation at sea. Having Obama and other senior U.S. officials publicly telegraph the likelihood of a naval patrol in the area was part of a “no surprises” strategy toward the Chinese, the official said.
A senior Obama administration official said the government had gone through a “rigorous inter-agency process” to come up with options for the president.
“Our aim was to ensure we made smart decisions to advance our strategic objectives in the Asia-Pacific region, including on maritime issues,” the official said. Read more