The Obama administration is denying reports that it imposed a "gag order" on military officials looking to more aggressively address China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea.
According to a report in the Navy Times earlier this week, Adm. Harry Harris, the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, has privately advocated for the U.S. to respond more aggressively to China’s territorial claims, which could involve conducting increased military operations within 12 miles of China’s manmade islands.
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The White House has allegedly resisted such appeals.
The Navy Times reported:
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. … National Security Adviser Susan Rice imposed a gag order on military leaders over the disputed South China Sea in the weeks running up to the last week’s high-level nuclear summit, according to two defense officials who asked for anonymity to discuss policy deliberations.
Rice reportedly requested that military officials refrain from talking publicly about China’s aggression in the South China Sea. An unnamed defense official was quoted as saying that the order was meant to ensure that President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping had "maximum political maneuvering space" when they met one-on-one last week during the summit on nuclear security in Washington, D.C.
However, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook later denied the existence of such a "gag order" to the Washington Post. Harris said in a statement that "any assertion that there is a disconnect between U.S. Pacific Command and the White House is simply not true."
A senior administration official told the Free Beacon that the Obama administration "recognizes the value of message discipline, especially when it comes to sensitive issues" but that efforts to coordinate messaging between the State Department, Defense Department, and National Security Council do not constitute a "gag order."
"There never has been a ‘gag order,’ as described by anonymous officials in the article. We have always been forthcoming–consistent with force protection imperatives– about the nature of our freedom of navigation operations, including individual missions and the broader principles at play, whether in the South China Sea or elsewhere," the administration official said.
"Specifically, we have routinely made the point that our operations in the South China Sea are routine, lawful, and consistent with the way we operate globally."
U.S. warships have conducted freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea in recent months, sailing within 12 nautical miles of China’s manmade islands, sparking criticism from China.
Harris accused China of "militarizing" the South China Sea after Beijing deployed a surface-to-air-missile system to a disputed island in the region earlier this year.
"China is clearly militarizing the South China Sea and you’d have to believe in the flat Earth to think otherwise," Harris told Congress in February. "China’s surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island, the new radars on the Cuarteron Reef, the 10,000-foot runway on Subi Reef over here and on Fiery Cross Reef and other places, these are actions that are changing in my opinion the operational landscape in the South China Sea."