According to a recent Navy Times article, at a National Security Council meeting on 18 March, National Security Advisor Susan Rice 'imposed a gag order on military leaders over the disputed South China Sea'. Its alleged aim was to "give Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping 'maximum political maneuvering space'...during the Global Nuclear Summit," held earlier this month. Yet, the White House's broader reason for muzzling its top brass — which Navy Times sources claim has happened before — was apparently to 'tamp down on rhetoric from [Admiral Harry] Harris and other military leaders,' which the administration believes has at times 'crossed the line into baiting the Chinese into hard-line positions'.

Whether an actual gag order was issued is a moot point. Still, the incident is symptomatic of divergent policy preferences on the South China Sea that have been brewing between the White House and US Pacific Command since early 2015. The two sides favour opposing, if equally understandable, approaches to dealing with China's creeping strategic expansion. At its core, their debate turns on how muscular and public America's military, strategic, and diplomatic push-back should be. Both sides arguably have some merit and their approaches may be usefully combined to deter militarisation.

President Obama and his foreign policy team have generally favoured moderate diplomatic criticism and minimal operational push-back. The President has frequently called for a 'halt to reclamation, new construction, and militarization' though, unlike Secretaries John Kerry and Ashton Carter, he has not directly criticised China for existing militarisation. Until last September, when a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing eventually forced its hand, the White House prevented Pacific Command from conducting 'freedom of navigation' operations (FONOPS) within 12 miles of China's artificial outposts — and then only allowed 'innocent passage' operations. Obama's rationale was probably rooted in his doctrine that 'talking tough or engaging in [tangential]…military action' is '[not] going to influence the decision making of [China,]' and may in fact undermine attempts at diplomacy.

Instead, the administration has focused on strategic efforts to balance China's actions by increasing America's forward military presence, strengthening its allies and partners' capabilities, and deepening security partnerships across the region. In all this, Obama's team has taken care to grant China diplomatic room to alter its behaviour without having to publicly succumb to overbearing American pressure, which has presumably been seen as politically untenable for China. This has included avoiding FONOPs and strong verbal rebukes in the run-up to major US-China meetings, which is where Rice's alleged 'gag order' fits into the equation.

By contrast, Pacific Command has adopted an openly critical stance towards China's island-building campaign and is known to favour a more muscular operational response. As early as March 2015, its outspoken chief, Admiral Harris, made international headlines by calling out China's 'Great Wall of Sand'. His rhetorical push-back has only hardened since then, culminating at a recent Senate Armed Services hearing where he concluded 'China seeks hegemony in East Asia. Simple as that'. According to many Washington insiders, Pacific Command and elements of the Pentagon have also been pushing for more confrontational FONOPs. Whereas his predecessor didn't press the White House for FONOP authorisation, Harris brought the issue to public attention and has recently been lobbying for FONOPs with a military component — like collecting intelligence or launching naval aviation — that are not bound by 'innocent passage' regulations. Last week, Senator John McCain, one of Harris' biggest supporters, weighed into the debate by calling on Obama to 'increase the pace and scope' of the administration's FONOP program and 'consider having a carrier strike group patrol the waters near Scarborough Shoal in a visible display of US combat power.' For proponents of this more forceful approach, tepid American military push-back 'has only encouraged continued expansion' and militarisation.

Which of these approaches is more likely to succeed? Is the White House's comparatively quiet public criticism and restrained naval operations really emboldening China? Would stronger push-back fare any better? Or might it fuel the crisis by driving China to act even more assertively?

Frustratingly, much of the evidence so far is mixed. On one hand, the administration's soft approach has patently failed to deter island-building or halt China's militarisation of Woody Island. But it has not yet presided over large-scale militarisation in the Spratly Islands or the creation of a South China Sea ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone). Why Beijing has not taken these steps is difficult to say, though there are a number of plausible explanations. Perhaps the White House's sustained focus on regional military balancing has led Beijing to conclude its actions are strategically counterproductive in the long-term. Equally plausible, however, is that Beijing intends to push these military initiatives forward once its outposts are completed, which hews closer to the assessment of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. 

On the other hand, there's no certainty that a more muscular approach would cause China to abandon its provocative activities. Although China has not seized on American FONOPs to spark maritime clashes or to double down on Spratly Islands militarisation (in contrast to its Paracel Island build-up), it doesn't necessarily follow that China will remain subdued in the wake of more frequent or confrontational US patrols. In fact, informed Chinese analysts believe that 'non-innocent passage' patrols within 12 miles of the Spratlys would embolden PLA hardliners and lead, as China has hinted, to more assertive militarisation and forward force deployments. At the same time, the fact that Beijing itself has not broken the news over American FONOPs or US and Australian aerial patrols — all were revealed by Western media — raises the prospect that Beijing may have an incentive to demur in the face of muscular patrols that make it look weak, if these are quietly executed.

A combination of forceful and moderate push-back may have advantages. Strongly calling out China's creeping militarisation of the South China Sea, as Harris and others endorse, is needed to build international opposition to behaviour that will otherwise quietly alter the regional status quo. If Washington alongside other countries and global bodies, like the G-7 and Australia, criticises China's actions directly, there is a chance reputational damage will cause Beijing to change course.

This will take time. Although a growing number of Chinese voices are calling for Beijing to return to a less provocative maritime policy, opposition has yet to filter upwards to the leadership level. Adopting less confrontational FONOPs while this pressure is mounting offers space for domestic opposition to take its course without strengthening the hand of hawks and netizens. Executing 'innocent passage' FONOPs and proceeding to more forceful patrols incrementally, as the White House seems to prefer, also provides a useful way to cautiously ratchet up pressure and test Chinese reactions without exacerbating risks.

Adopting a deterrence framework also makes sense, and requires a mix of quiet diplomacy and credible but muscular threats. This is where the White House and Pacific Command can potentially combine their approaches. Given the impossibility of rolling back China's Spratly Island outposts, Washington must focus its efforts on dissuading Beijing from militarising its existing outposts, setting up a new ADIZ, and initiating reclamation work at Scarborough Shoal. More frequent and confrontational American FONOPs, such as those advocated by Harris and McCain, might serve as useful bargaining chips in this equation. As I explore in a forthcoming Lowy Institute report with Rory Medcalf, these responses — in addition to other indirect costs — could be presented to Beijing as the 'specific consequences,' to use Carter's language, of its decision to pursue either of all of the aforementioned activities. In this way, Washington might regain some initiative in the South China Sea. Yet, for these deterrence threats to have a chance of working and not triggering an assertive Chinese retaliation, they must be communicated privately and clearly to interlocutors in Beijing, adopting the Obama administration's preference for a diplomatic approach.

The US and its allies and partners have so far struggled to craft an effective policy response to China's island-building in the South China Sea. While differences between the White House and Pacific Command represent conflicting perspectives on how to proceed, they are not necessarily incompatible. Given that Washington's underlying challenge in this dispute is how to deter militarisation without unnecessarily inflaming US-China tensions or turning Beijing into an adversary, combining soft and hard policies may be a constructive way forward.

Photo courtesy of whitehouse.gov