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."
Top Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook declined to comment on the NSC directive.
"As I am sure you know, we don't comment on internal policy documents or discussions, especially ones that may be incomplete, and so we will decline to comment here as well," Cook said.
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.
The confrontational rhetoric has at times upset the White House as it pursues agenda items beyond security challenges. The latest directive comes after a September state trip by President Obama and National Security Advisor Susan Rice to the Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China.
"Great power competition" has been at the core of Carter's message, as the services reinvest in the state-of-the-art weapons needed to deter sophisticated opponents like Russia and China.
"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."
Rumors of the directive also rankled some on Capitol Hill. During a recent Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joe Dunford to comment.
"Gen. Dunford, are we in great power competition with China?" Cotton asked, to which Dunford replied: "We are, senator."
When Cotton asked Carter, the secretary replied: "We are. Absolutely right."
A complex relationship
The back-and-forth comes amid debate about how to confront China's increasingly aggressive behavior in the South and East China seas.
China's land reclamation projects in the vicinity of the Spratly Islands have been the focus of rising tensions between China and the United States and its regional allies like the Philippines.
In July, an international tribunal dealt a legal blow to China. The panel in The Hague, Netherlands, dismissed China’s attempt to create legal rights for features in the Spratly Islands chain by constructing air strips and bases there. The ruling states that piling dirt and sand on rocky outcroppings and reefs doesn't confer additional resource rights to the waters around it.
Despite the ruling, China has not vacated its islands and is currently threatening to expand its claims with a new island-building project near Scarborough Shoal, less than 140 miles from the Philippines’ capital and well within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone. A military base on Scarborough would threaten U.S. troops and aircraft in that country.
China has also edged in on Japanese claims in the East China Sea, which has prompted the pacifist nation to increase its military activities and spending. In 2015, Japan passed a record defense spending bill, largely in response to the Chinese threat.
For its part, the Obama administration insists it’s not blind to the threat China’s activities pose to American interests.
"We always talk about maximizing cooperation to the extent possible," the senior administration official said. "But we are very clear-eyed and candid about the differences and that there is competition between us. … There is no question that some of China’s activities in the maritime realm are generating significant tension, but there are other areas where developments have been extremely positive."
The official went on to say that using a "slogan" to describe a complicated relationship is unhelpful, pointing to progress on a climate change pact and global health programs.
Several leading experts have called for precisely that kind of nuanced approach to the world's most populous country.
"My view is that it's unhelpful to describe a very complex relationship in a simple phrase, regardless of whether it is positive or negative," said Bonnie Glaser, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Michael O’Hanlon, an influential security policy expert at the Brookings Institution, said that focusing solely on the positive or the negative aspects of the relationship isn’t good policy.
"To oversimplify in either direction is not only analytically inaccurate, but consequential for the tone and substance of the relationship," he said. "The White House really does have it right, I strongly believe."
A Pentagon spokesman said the U.S. relationship with China focuses on competition and cooperation.
"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."
"At the same time, we have worked hard at reducing tensions and increasing transparency with China by implementing confidence building measures in both the maritime and air domains. We also have a long-standing military to military relationship. We will continue to engage with China as appropriate, while being open and clear about our differences."
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."
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.