The White House did not issue a gag order on the U.S. military authorities over the South China Sea controversy, the Obama administration and a top military official said dismissing a report that stated otherwise, the Washington Post reported Thursday.
A report by Navy Times said that national security adviser Susan Rice decided to “muzzle” Adm. Harry Harris, the chief of U.S. Pacific Command, and other senior military officials ahead of President Barack Obama’s nuclear summit in Washington last week that included Chinese President Xi Jinping.
According to Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter and Harris have “been able to provide frank and informed counsel to the president and the National Security Council on a host of issues related to the Asia-Pacific area of responsibility,” the Washington Post reported.
“We are confident that counsel has been considered and valued,” Cook reportedly said. The Defense Department “fully supports the current maritime strategy in the Pacific and is working to execute that strategy to the best of their ability. We continue to coordinate our communications within the framework of the interagency process in a way that advances that strategy.”
Cook added: “To be clear, there never has been a ‘gag order,’ as described by anonymous officials in the article.”
Harris also issued a statement saying that “any assertion that there is a disconnect between U.S. Pacific Command and the White House is simply not true.”
“Maintaining that trust is why senior military admirals and generals won’t discuss our counsel in public,” Harris said in the statement. “During recent congressional testimony and press engagements in Washington just a few weeks ago, I was very public and candid about my concerns regarding many issues in the Indo-Asia-Pacific to include the fact that China’s militarization of the South China Sea is problematic. So any suggestion that ‘the White House has sought to tamp down’ on my talking about my concerns is patently wrong.”
Harris expressed satisfaction that his concerns and recommendations are “solicited, listened to and considered.”
According to Navy Times, the Obama administration was not too keen on letting the military speak over the South China Sea issue as it is looking to work with China on several issues, including nuclear non-proliferation and trade agenda. The report added that the administration 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.”
The South China Sea region has been long contested, with Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam laying claim to various areas. Beijing has been expanding its presence in the disputed area and has built three runways on the Spratly archipelago. However, China has consistently defended its actions, saying it does not have any intentions of starting a conflict and that its aircraft facilities will maintain safety in the region.
Late October, the U.S. angered Beijing by sending USS Lassen guided missile destroyer within territorial waters claimed by China. China's foreign ministry said at the time that the country expressed its “strong discontent” and “resolute opposition” to the U.S. action, which it argued threatened the sovereignty and security interests of China.