The White House has barred Pentagon leaders from a key talking point when it comes to publicly describing the military challenges posed by China.
In February, Defense Secretary Ash Carter cited the “return to great power of competition” in the Asia-Pacific, “where China is rising.”
Similarly, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson characterized China and Russia as rivals in this “great power competition” in his maritime strategy.
But a recent directive from the National Security Council ordered Pentagon leaders to strike out that phrase and find something less inflammatory, according to four officials familiar with the classified document, revealed here for the first time by Navy Times. 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.
“Their explanation is an exercise in nuance and complexity, purposely chosen by the administration to provide maximum flexibility, to prevent them from committing to a real structural approach to the most important national security challenge of our time,” said Bryan McGrath, a naval expert and retired destroyer skipper.
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,” said a senior administration official in a Sunday phone call. “We don’t buy into the notion that an established and rising power are destined for conflict.”
The Pentagon and the White House have grappled with how to engage with China while confronting their expansive military moves. Early this year, some Pentagon leaders urged tough responses to China’s island building, which threatens allies like the Philippines. In March, the White House similarly dissuaded military leaders from airing differences over the Chinese moves in the South China Sea so as not to complicate a high-level meeting between the the U.S. and Chinese presidents.
The U.S. later adopted more muscular moves, like sending destroyers on close passes of China’s fake islands and sending more ships, troops and aircraft to rotate through the Philippines — a neighbor at odds with China over its claims.
“We will be prepared for a high-end enemy,” Carter said in February talk to the Economic Forum. “That’s what we call full spectrum. In our budget, our plans, our capabilities and our actions, we must demonstrate to potential foes, that if they start a war, we have the capability to win. … In this context, Russia and China are our most stressing competitors. They have developed and are continuing to advance military systems that seek to threaten our advantages in specific areas. And in some case, they are developing weapons and ways of wars that seek to achieve their objectives rapidly, before they hope, we can respond.”
Great power competition was also the central idea of the CNO’s strategic guidance, which said Russia and China have “a growing arsenal of high-end war-fighting capabilities, many of which are focused specifically on our vulnerabilities.”
A complex relationship
“The US-China relationship is composed of competitive and cooperative elements,” said Navy Cmdr. Gary Ross in an email. “It is only natural that, as the deterrent arm of the United States government, the Defense Department is prepared for the possibility of conflict with any potential aggressor.”
The NSC’s directive is unsettling for those who view China’s military buildup as the key driver of the U.S.-China relationship — and a threat to the post-World War II world order.
“This kind of lawyerly nuancing is not what the American people need,” said McGrath, who leads the consulting firm The FerryBridge Group. “They don’t need nationalism or jingoism, they need a restatement of the role the U.S. plays in the proper function, security and prosperity of the world. To actually contend in great power competition, you have to identify for the American people what is the problem. The problem with this administrations’ insistence in avoiding terms that the American people understand is it lacks clarity. ”
“What this means is we will spend at least the next 90 days with an administration that’s just trying to tread water.”
Full article: White House tells the Pentagon to quit talking about ‘competition’ with China (NavyTimes)