NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
The Obama administration appears to be launching a new diplomatic push to prevent China from imposing another destabilizing air defense zone over international waters.
China watchers say the administration’s pushback against China is probably too little, too late, as China reportedly is making legal preparations for the new air defense zone over the South China Sea.
Administration political messaging has been confused, vacillating between statements of U.S. neutrality in maritime disputes and mild statements of support for regional friends and allies, analysts say.
In an apparent attempt to remedy the problem, senior military leaders and White House and State Department officials in recent days issued relatively tough warnings to Beijing not to impose an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the contested South China Sea.
China heightened tensions in the region late last year by imposing an ADIZ over the East China Sea, including waters off Japan’s Senkaku islands that China claims as its territory. Japan, South Korea and the United States said they will ignore China’s claims over the sea.
Recently, U.S. intelligence agencies warned that China appears to be readying another zone over the South China Sea, a move that is expected to set off further confrontations with Southeast Asian states including Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, which use the waters for fishing and are eyeing undersea oil and gas deposits.
On Monday, Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific, bluntly stated that China’s imposition of a South China Sea ADIZ would be a “very provocative act.”
“The risk from miscalculation is high. It’s greater than it should be,” Gen. Carlisle told Bloomberg News in Singapore.
The general’s comments drew a harsh rebuke from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying, who denounced what she termed “irresponsible” remarks.
However, Ms. Hua in a briefing for reporters in Beijing did not deny plans are underway for a South China Sea ADIZ. She suggested that the current security environment did not warrant it.
“Setting up air defense identification zones is a legitimate right exercised by China as a sovereign state,” Ms. Hua said on Monday.
On Tuesday in San Diego, Navy Adm. Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, voiced concerns about increasing Chinese aggressiveness in the region.
Adm. Harris criticized China’s November imposition of the East China Sea zone. “Our criticism  is less about its right to do so, but rather how they did it, in a unilateral attempt to change the status quo,” the four-star admiral said at a conference. “I also have concerns about the aggressive growth of the Chinese military [and] their lack of transparency.”
Adm. Harris said China’s attempt to force the guided missile destroyer USS Cowpens to stop in the South China Sea weeks ago shows the danger of a “miscalculation.”
U.S. officials said a Chinese amphibious ship sailed within 100 yards of the Cowpens and stopped, resulting in a near-collision on Dec. 5.
Earlier, Evan Medeiros, a China policymaker on the National Security Council staff, disclosed that the U.S. government recently asked China not to impose the new zone over the South China Sea. He said doing so would prompt the U.S. military to increase its forces in Asia.
“We oppose China’s establishment of an ADIZ in other areas, including the South China Sea,” Mr. Medeiros told Japan’s Kyodo News agency Jan. 30. “We have been very clear with the Chinese that we would see that as a provocative and destabilizing development that would result in changes in our presence and military posture in the region.”
An even milder rebuke was issued by Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. Mr. Russel told a congressional hearing last week that there are “growing concerns” over Chinese maritime claims that he suggested are illegal under international law.
Mr. Russel said China’s “pattern of behavior” — diplomatic code for aggressive maritime bullying — appeared part of an “incremental effort” by Beijing to assert control over international waters.
A U.S. official summed up the tensions in a comment to The Nelson Report’s Chris Nelson: “What we need to think our way through is how China’s salami-slicing tactics (and they will continue whether with an ADIZ in the [South China Sea] or elsewhere) will play against U.S. credibility.
“If all we have are diplomatic response[s] when China is creating new facts on the ground/in the sea/air, this will continue to erode U.S. credibility with allies and partners; and, if, God forbid, we fail to honor alliance commitments, especially on the Senkakus, we soon will have no allies/partners/standing in the region.”
IRAN THREAT ON THE HORIZON
U.S. officials say Iran’s threat to deploy warships near U.S. coasts so far has not materialized.
“Right now we don’t see any signs of Iranian warships in the Atlantic,” a Navy official told Inside the Ring. “We are continuing to monitor the situation.”
Another official said the U.S. intelligence community is gearing up for the prospect of Iranian incursions near the East Coast, especially Virginia’s Norfolk naval base and the strategic submarine pen at Kings Bay, Ga.
U.S. intelligence sensors, including satellites, aircraft and spy ships, are being readied for any Iranian incursions close to U.S. coasts.
One concern is that Iran in the past has conducted a flight test of a mobile ballistic missile from the deck of a freighter.
The Navy official said ships flagged by many nations sail in the Atlantic and few worries are expected as long as the Iranians observe customary “rules of the road” for naval deployments.
Iran’s state-run news outlets said at least two ships, the helicopter-carrying Kharg and the destroyer Sabalan, would make the 15,500-mile trip across the Atlantic in three months. The deployment is meant to counter U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf.
Iran said its ships had entered the Atlantic near the southernmost coast of South Africa.
Iran also announced this week that it had conducted a flight test of a long-range missile it calls Bina.
Meanwhile, the first of four U.S. missile defense warships arrived at Rota, Spain. The USS Donald Cook, a destroyer equipped with the Aegis SM-3 combat system, arrived in port Tuesday.
The warship is part of U.S. and NATO missile defenses that will include sea- and ground-based interceptors and radar.
“For the first time, a ship of the U.S. Navy equipped with the Aegis ballistic missile-defense system is permanently based in Europe,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
MARINE TIMES BLACKLISTED
The Marine Corps Times is persona non grata in, well, the Marine Corps.
The Gannett-owned outlet reported this week that Corps higher-ups ordered copies of the independent newspaper removed from newsstands at base exchanges around the world and shelved away from checkout lines.
The report said the decision was related to its coverage of a scandal at the top — allegations that Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos had illegally interfered with the prosecution of eight Marines in the infamous desecration of Taliban corpses in Afghanistan.
The Times said the commandant was aware of the decision to shun the paper.
“It’s a questionable move against the backdrop of my staff’s ongoing investigation into allegations the service’s top general abused his authority,” Managing Editor Andrew deGrandpre told Inside the Ring.
A Corps whistleblower who served as a judge advocate at the Marine combat development center in Quantico, Va., witnessed what he believed was unlawful command influence by Gen. Amos and his staff. He filed complaints with the Pentagon inspector general.
The IG has been investigating whether the officer, Maj. James Weirick, was a target of retaliation when he was removed from his job, ordered to undergo a mental evaluation (which he passed) and told to turn in his licensed firearms. Maj. Weirick had received excellent fitness reports and had been selected for promotion to lieutenant colonel.
• Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.