The Obama administration, as with other geopolitical issues, is running out the clock until the next presidential administration. National Security Adviser Susan Rice imposed a gag order on military leaders over the disputed South China Sea.
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
Facts on the water
* China has established superior naval and air force capability
* China can easily fully develop the artificial islands into full military bases as a well as the Scarborough Shoal
* The US would have to commit tens of thousands of marines and a few aircraft carrier groups and fully deploy to Philippine bases and pretty much start a major shooting war to push China out of the South China Sea. For the next six months the US will not even sail within the 12 mile limits and will not even talk harshly about the situation
* China is developing heavy cargo aircraft with the Ukraine and would be able build up and supply the islands under more circumstances
The election last spring of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has since showered threats and epithets on the United States, has changed China’s calculation.
That does not mean China has given up on the long-term goal of what could be a vast military base on Scarborough Shoal. But for the moment, the plans appear to be postponed.
A pause would allow for talks between China and Southeast Asian nations on a so-called Code of Conduct to lay down rules of behavior in the South China Sea. Premier Li Keqiang of China called for the code’s completion at a recent summit meeting of Southeast Asian nations in Laos.
The questions are whether Beijing is willing to dampen its sovereignty claims now that it has established its tactical advantages in the South China Sea and if countries like the Philippines are willing to cut cooperative development deals that split the resources and push out any actual sovereignty resolution.
The Philippine Constitution dictates that Philippine entities must retain 60 percent capital and ownership when it comes to joint exploration with foreign companies — a condition that Beijing can hardly accept unless both sides are willing to caveat their stances.
SOURCES - War on the Rocks, USNI, Stratfor, NY Times