Despite overwhelming evidence that China was and is militarizing its ill-gotten territories in the South China Sea, senior Obama administration officials refused to give the Navy the go ahead on freedom of navigation operations, leaked documents show.
“The US Navy should launch freedom of navigation operations as soon as possible, and before China fully militarizes the ‘islands,’ to establish the principle that we consider this to be international waters. We were told that there is a broad consensus to do so, but it is being held-up at the highest levels of the White House,” Stuart Eizenstat, a member of the Defense Policy Board, a Department of Defense adviser, told Hillary Clinton’s top foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan in an email released in the latest WikiLeaks dump.
Eizenstat attached a working paper with edits from Defense Policy Board Chairman John Hamre to the Sept. 25, 2015 email. “China’s island-building activities represent a deep, systematic and strategic development, not a tactical response or a passing phenomenon,” the working paper explained, stressing the dangerous realities of China’s South China Sea activities.
“Chinese island building does present complications from a military point of view, but the significance is more broadly a strategic political move designed to establish Chinese dominance and marginalize U.S. influence in the region,” the working paper noted. “A delay on ‘freedom of navigation’ operations is hurting U.S. standing in the region. It will become more difficult and confrontational to launch freedom of navigation operations AFTER China has militarized the newly-built islands.”
Despite strong pressure on the administration to act, the Obama administration repeatedly demonstrated hesitancy in launching freedom of navigation operations.
The leaked email did not specify which administration officials were behind the hold up.
Defense officials indicated that the Obama administration opposed sending ships within 12 nautical miles of China’s man-made and illegally-acquired islands because such actions were provocative and could negatively impact U.S.-China relations, according to the Washington Free Beacon.
While the White House floundered, China reclaimed incredible amounts of land and began developing military outposts in the South China Sea.
It was reportedly only after Congress put pressure on the administration that the administration agreed to conduct a freedom of navigation operation. The guided missile destroyer USS Lassen sailed past an artificial island in the Spratly Islands on Oct. 27, 2015. Since then, the U.S. has conducted three more freedom of navigation operations, with the most recent having taken place last Friday.
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