Report: White House Bars Pentagon From Talking About ‘Competition’ With China

Barack Obama, Xi Jinping
Barack Obama, Xi Jinping / AP
September 27, 2016

The White House has reportedly barred the Defense Department from discussing military "competition" with China, telling leaders to scrap the wording in favor of something less provocative.

The Navy Times reported that, according to a classified document, the National Security Council recently directed leaders at the Pentagon to stop using the phrase "great power competition" when publicly addressing the challenges China poses to the U.S. military.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations, have each used this phrase or one similar when discussing America’s "competition" with Beijing this year.

News of the directive comes at a time when the United States is trying to dissuade China’s aggressive territorial claims and island-building campaign in the South China Sea. Experts criticized the Obama administration’s policy toward Beijing on the South China Sea last week, saying before a House panel on Capitol Hill that more needs to be done militarily and diplomatically to deter China.

The Navy Times further reported:

Obama administration officials and some experts say "great power competition" inaccurately frames the U.S. and China as on a collision course, but other experts warn that China’s ship building, man-made islands, and expansive claims in the South and East China Seas are hostile to U.S. interests. This needlessly muddies leaders’ efforts to explain the tough measures needed to contain China’s rise, these critics say.


The Obama administration, however, believes that the term "great power competition" oversimplifies a complicated relationship with a rising superpower.

"Nothing is preordained about this relationship," a senior administration official said in a Sunday phone call. "We don’t buy into the notion that established and rising power[s] are destined for conflict."

As China has pursued what many describe as "militarization" in the South China Sea, the Obama administration has sought to cooperate with Beijing in a number of areas, including on climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.

"Because the United States has prioritized cooperation with China on a vast number of issues, some of which are very important—climate change, the agreement with Iran to prevent Iran from going nuclear—there has been, I think, a belief in the administration that we can’t have those and then at the same time put pressure on China to stop taking destabilizing actions in the South China Sea," Bonnie Glaser, an Asia studies expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told House lawmakers last week.

"But I think we can do both and we have to be willing to very clearly tell the Chinese that their behavior is unacceptable," Glaser said.

Ahead of the G-20 summit earlier this month, President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, formally agreed to the terms of the climate accord brokered in Paris last year. During the summit, an increased number of Chinese ships were spotted by the Philippines near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, on which experts worry China will pursue reclamation.

Beijing has rejected an international tribunal ruling that its South China Sea claims have no legal or historical basis, despite the United States urging it to accept the decision.

The U.S. Navy has sailed warships close to disputed features claimed by China in the South China Sea to exercise freedom of navigation under the rules of "innocent passage," in an effort to deter Chinese aggression.