The Obama administration and a four-star admiral have denied that the White House issued a “gag order” on senior U.S. military officials discussing the disputed South China Sea, a politically charged region that is dogging the administration in its last months in office.
The denials came after the independent Navy Times reported Wednesday that national security adviser Susan Rice decided to “muzzle” Adm. Harry Harris, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, and other senior military officials as the Obama administration prepared to host a nuclear summit in Washington last week that included China’s president, Xi Jinping. Rice’s request was designed to give President Obama room to maneuver politically as he met with the Chinese president, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous officials.
But Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, said that Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Harris have “been able to provide frank and informed counsel to the president and the National Security Council on a host of issues related to the Asia-Pacific area of responsibility.”
“We are confident that counsel has been considered and valued,” Cook said. The Defense Department “fully supports the current maritime strategy in the Pacific and is working to execute that strategy to the best of their ability. We continue to coordinate our communications within the framework of the interagency process in a way that advances that strategy.”
Cook added: “To be clear, there never has been a ‘gag order,’ as described by anonymous officials in the article.”
Harris said in a statement released to The Washington Post that “any assertion that there is a disconnect between U.S. Pacific Command and the White House is simply not true.” He declined to discuss what he has recommended, saying his private counsel to President Obama and Carter during classified deliberations “wouldn’t be worth much if it weren’t private.
“Maintaining that trust is why senior military admirals and generals won’t discuss our counsel in public,” Harris said. “During recent congressional testimony and press engagements in Washington just a few weeks ago, I was very public and candid about my concerns regarding many issues in the Indo-Asia-Pacific to include the fact that China’s militarization of the South China Sea is problematic. So any suggestion that ‘the White House has sought to tamp down’ on my talking about my concerns is patently wrong.”
Harris said that he is satisfied that his concerns and recommendations are “solicited, listened to and considered.”
The president has accepted many of Harris’s recommendations, including resuming freedom-of-navigation operations in the South China Sea a few months ago to demonstrate waterways in that region will be patrolled by the Navy, said one defense official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak on the subject.
The issue exposes a couple of nerves for the Obama administration as it closes out its final year in the White House. For one, the previous three Pentagon chiefs have all voiced frustrations with perceived administration micromanagement after leaving office. Those former defense secretaries — Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel — made those points again in an interview with Fox News that aired Wednesday.
The Obama administration also has faced questions this year about how it will handle tensions in the South China Sea, in light of China continuing to add weapons, including surface-to-air missiles, in the region despite protests from U.S. partners such as Taiwan and the Philippines.
Harris and other senior military officials — including Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — have increasingly raised concerns about China’s operations in the South China Sea for months. During congressional testimony in February, Harris said “you have to believe in a flat Earth” to think China’s goal is not to militarize the area and achieve “hegemony in East Asia.”
China has specifically developed capabilities that counter U.S. strengths, including missiles that would help protect against U.S. aircraft, Dunford told the House Appropriations Committee in late February. Beijing’s “rapid military modernization is quickly closing the gap with U.S. military capabilities and is eroding the joint force’s competitive military advantages,” the general said.
The issue is likely to get even more exposure in coming days, as Carter visits the Philippines as part of a trip to Asia. The United States recently signed an agreement that will allow it to regularly use five Philippine bases. The deal led Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying to comment: “The U.S. has talked about militarization in the South China Sea. But can it explain whether its own increased military deployment in the region is equivalent to militarization?”
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