Editor's note: This article was originally posted on April 6 and was republished Sept. 26 on the new Navytimes.com website.
The U.S. military's top commander in the Pacific is arguing behind closed doors for a more confrontational approach to counter and reverse China's strategic gains in the South China Sea, appeals that have met resistance from the White House at nearly every turn.
Adm. Harry Harris is proposing a muscular U.S. response to China's island-building that may include launching aircraft and conducting military operations within 12 miles of these man-made islands, as part of an effort to stop what he has called the "Great Wall of Sand" before it extends within 140 miles from the Philippines' capital, sources say.
Harris and his U.S. Pacific Command have been waging a persistent campaign in public and in private over the past several months to raise the profile of China's land grab, accusing China outright in February of militarizing the South China Sea.
But the Obama administration, with just nine months left in office, is looking to work with China on a host of other issues from nuclear non-proliferation to an ambitious trade agenda, experts say, and would prefer not to rock the South China Sea boat, even going so far as to muzzle Harris and other military leaders in the run-up to a security summit.
"They want to get out of office with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of cooperation with China," said Jerry Hendrix, a retired Navy captain and defense strategy analyst with the Center for a New American Security.
The White House has sought to tamp down on rhetoric from Harris and other military leaders, who are warning that China is consolidating its gains to solidify sovereignty claims to most of the South China Sea.
National Security Adviser Susan Rice imposed a gag order on military leaders over the disputed South China Sea in the weeks running up to the last week's high-level nuclear summit, according to two defense officials who asked for anonymity to discuss policy deliberations. China's president, Xi Jinping, attended the summit, held in Washington, and met privately with President Obama.
The order was part of the notes from a March 18 National Security Council meeting and included a request from Rice to avoid public comments on China's recent actions in the South China Sea, said a defense official familiar with the meeting readout.
In issuing the gag order, Rice intended to give Presidents Obama and Xi Jinping "maximum political maneuvering space" during their one-on-one meeting during the global Nuclear Summit held March 31 through April 1, the official said.
"Sometimes it's OK to talk about the facts and point out what China is doing, and other times it's not," the official familiar with the memo said. "Meanwhile, the Chinese have been absolutely consistent in their messaging."
The NSC dictum has had a "chilling effect" within the Pentagon that discouraged leaders from talking publicly about the South China Sea at all, even beyond the presidential summit, according to a second defense official familiar with operational planning. Push-back from the NSC has become normal in cases where it thinks leaders have crossed the line into baiting the Chinese into hard-line positions, sources said.
Military leaders interpreted this as an order to stay silent on China's assertive moves to control most of the South China Sea, said both defense officials, prompting concern that the paltry U.S. response may embolden the Chinese and worry U.S. allies in the region, like Japan and the Philippines, who feel bullied.
China, which has been constructing islands and airstrips atop reefs and rocky outcroppings in the Spratly Islands, sees the South China Sea as Chinese territory. President Xi told Obama during their meeting at the nuclear summit that China would not accept any behavior in the disguise of freedom of navigation that violates its sovereignty, according to a Reuters report. The two world leaders did agree to work together on nuclear and cyber security issues.
Experts say administrations often direct military leaders to tone down their rhetoric ahead of major talks, but the current directive comes at a difficult juncture. U.S. leaders are struggling to find an effective approach to stopping the island-building without triggering a confrontation.
The NSC frequently takes top-down control to send a coherent message, said Bryan Clark a former senior aide to Adm. Jon Greenert, the recently retired chief of naval operations. While serving as Greenert's aide, Clark said the NSC regularly vetted the former CNO's statements on China and the South China Sea.
Critics say the administration's wait-and-see approach to the South China Sea has failed, with the island-dredging continuing in full force.
"The White House's aversion to risk has resulted in an indecisive policy that has failed to deter China's pursuit of maritime hegemony while confusing and alarming our regional allies and partners," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a statement to Navy Times. "China's increasingly coercive challenge to the rules-based international order must be met with a determined response that demonstrates America's resolve and reassures the region of our commitment."
When presented with the findings of this article, Harris declined to comment through a spokesperson. A spokesman for the chief of naval operations had no comment when asked about Harris' proposals and whether the CNO was supporting them.
An administration official said the Navy's operations in the South China Sea are routine and that the administration often seeks to coordinate its message.
"While we're not going to characterize the results of deliberative meetings, it's no secret that we coordinate messaging across the inter-agency-on issues related to China as well as every other priority under the sun," the official said.
The gag order has had at least one intended effect. The amphibious assault ship Boxer and the dock landing ship Harpers Ferry, both carrying the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, steamed through the South China Sea in late March to little fanfare.
'The status quo has changed'
Meanwhile evidence is mounting that China aims to build another island atop the Scarborough Shoal, an atoll just 140 miles off the coast of the Philippines' capital of Manila and well within the Philippines' 200-mile economic exclusion zone, that would extend China's claims. Chinese missile batteries and air-search radars there would put U.S. forces in the Philippines at risk in a crisis.
Harris and PACOM officials have been lobbying the National Security Council, Capitol Hill and Pentagon leaders to send a clear message that they won't tolerate continued bullying of neighbors. Part of the approach includes more aggressive, frequent and close patrols of China's artificial islands, Navy Times has learned.
"When it comes to the South China Sea, I think the largest military concern for [U.S.] Pacific Command is what operational situation will be left to the next commander or the commander after that," said a Senate staffer familiar with the issues in the South China Sea.
"The status quo is clearly being changed. Militarization at Scarborough Shoal would give [China's People's Liberation Army-Navy] the ability to hold Subic Bay, Manila Bay, and the Luzon Strait at risk with coastal defense cruise missiles or track aviation assets moving in or out of the northern Philippines."