- - Thursday, November 5, 2015


Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is hoping to send a strong signal in the South China Sea with a visit to the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier together with Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin. But if he wants the visit to pack a real punch, he must make sure that the Obama administration gets the messaging right back in Washington — something it failed to do following last week’s freedom of navigation operation (FONOP).

On October 27, the United States sent the USS Lassen, a guided-missile destroyer, within 12 miles of one of China’s man-made islands in the Spratly archipelago. More than 700 miles separate the archipelago from China, but China has been busy pouring sand on top of reefs — building over 2,000 acres of new land over the past year. Adding insult to injury, China now claims that the 12-mile area surrounding these artificial creations form part of Chinese territorial waters. International law provides no basis for such claims; the waters remain international and all countries are free to navigate through them without restriction. The freedom of navigation operation was meant to defend and reassert that principle and send an important message throughout the South China Sea region that the United States will not allow China to violate international law and restrict the sea lines of communication in this critical waterway through which over $5 trillion of goods flow annually.

Reaction to the operation from countries throughout the South China Sea and beyond was swift and positive. President Aquino of the Philippines stated that he saw “no issue as to this U.S. Navy ship traversing under international law in waters that should be free to be traveled upon by any country,” reflecting the sentiment of many in the region. Japan and Australia expressed support, as did the European Union. Several countries suggested that they may be willing to join the United States in future freedom of navigation operations, serving as a powerful reminder that others follow when America leads.

But unfortunately, the Obama administration felt compelled to obscure its show of strength behind a smoke screen of weakness and equivocation that undermined the very purpose of the operation.

Indeed, immediately following the freedom of navigation operation, the White House began issuing instructions across the administration to tone down any language relating to the operation, communicating publicly through a senior administration official that “we don’t want to make this a bigger deal than it already is.” As a result, State Department spokesman John Kirby emphasized in his press briefing that the “U.S.-China relationship is vitally important and one we want to see continue growing,” without making any mention of the operation. Defense Secretary Carter, meanwhile, during testimony the day after the freedom of navigation operation, initially refused to even acknowledge whether the operation had happened, ultimately relenting and making the banal statement that “what you read in the newspaper is accurate.”

Even worse, another U.S. defense official felt compelled to make sure China did not feel singled out by making sure to clarify that the freedom of navigation operation had also included a passage within 12 miles of features claimed by the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, and Vietnam. The Philippines and Vietnam are among the countries that are offering stronger defense cooperation with the United States in order to counter China’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea, with both countries in discussions with the United States about increased access to naval bases, enhancing joint exercises and patrols, and sharing information and technology. In this context, it is baffling that the Obama administration would now suggest that the freedom of navigation operation was targeted at the Philippines and Vietnam just as much as China.

Everything about its muddled statements following the freedom of navigation operation suggests that the Obama administration felt extremely uncomfortable sending a message to China about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea; yet that is exactly what the FONOP was meant to do.

The administration now has a chance at redemption. This week, the annual meeting of the Asean Defense Ministers Plus failed to issue a joint declaration because of China’s refusal to include any reference to the South China Sea. The administration must make crystal clear that Secretary Carter’s visit to the USS Theodore Roosevelt is a direct result of this breakdown at the meeting. Momentum is building in various corners of the world — including with a recent ruling by a U.N.-backed tribunal that it has jurisdiction to review certain cases against Beijing relating to its actions in the South China Sea. The United States must build on this momentum by calling out China’s violations of international norms without backpedaling or seeking ways to spread the blame to other countries in the region.

Otherwise another opportunity to project strength in defense of U.S. allies and U.S. interests will have been squandered by an administration that seems incapable of pursuing any foreign policy with clarity of purpose.

Alexander Benard is chief operating officer of Schulze Global Investments, a U.S. private equity firm headquartered in Singapore focused on frontier markets.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide