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Obama Silences Pentagon: Stop Talking About “Competition” With China

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Darby Crash
Obama Silences Pentagon: Stop Talking About “Competition” With China

Excerpted from Navy Times: 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. Keep reading

“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.

‘High-end enemy’

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. Keep reading

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