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EXCLUSIVE: Trump Administration Not Yet Challenging China in South China Sea

WASHINGTON – The Navy has made several requests to conduct operations that would challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, but the administration has not granted them, Breitbart News has learned.

The operations are known as Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPs, which would challenge China’s claims to its man-made islands in the South China Sea.

The Navy has requested to conduct several “Tier Three” FONOPs, which require White House approval. Those could entail sailing within 12 nautical miles of the islands, which would signal to China that they do not own the waters surrounding the islands.

Officials gave conflicting reasons the Trump administration is not conducting the FONOPs. Some officials believe they have been approved by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, but have not been acted upon by the NSC.

However, several officials say those requests have not made it past Mattis’ desk.

“The NSC is not holding [South China Sea] FONOPs,” said an NSC official on background. The White House directed questions to the NSC.

Some experts point to the lack of Pentagon appointees and an overall Asia policy as the main reason the FONOPs are not getting done.

While Mattis has been in the position for more than two months, he does not yet have top policy advisers in place who would advise him on FONOPs, including an under secretary of defense for policy or an assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security.

Currently at the Pentagon, out of 53 presidentially-appointed, Senate-confirmed positions, only Mattis is in place. The rest of the positions are being filled by a mixture of Obama holdovers and civil servants. A recent Politico story detailed troubles Mattis is having with bringing on appointees.

“These are really complex issues. And not only is this a president with no experience in these issues, there are vast staffing gaps across the foreign policy and national security bureaucracy. So given this, it’s not a surprise that the Trump administration is still formulating its policy,” said Asia scholar Jennifer M. Lind, associate professor at Dartmouth College.

Lind said the administration first needs to figure out its policy on the South China Sea, and then figure out if FONOPs are a good way to assert its position since FONOPs could also signal to China that the U.S. is tacitly accepting its territorial claims of the islands, but not the waters surrounding them.

They would also undoubtedly upset China, who considers the South China Sea its backyard.

It was a problem that bedeviled the Obama administration, which specifically prohibited such operations between 2012 and 2015, during which China continued to build artificial islands and equip them with weapons and surveillance assets, according to Navy Times.

The reticence to conduct FONOPs frustrated Navy commanders in the region, who believe that such operations need to be routine everywhere, particularly in contested areas, to make sure sea lanes are open to global commerce and the international community.

Experts expected the Trump administration to be more forward-leaning in the South China Sea, particularly after then-Secretary of State designee Rex Tillerson’s testimony at his confirmation hearing, where he said the U.S. would block China’s access to the islands.

Bonnie Glaser, a top Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is possible the administration wants to figure out its larger policy towards Asia before conducting FONOPs.

“Maybe there is a sense that FONOPs have to be considered within a larger strategy,” she said.

She noted that Trump is planning to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in April, and could discuss the issue with him at that time.

Glaser also pointed out that the administration seems currently focused on the threat from North Korea and may not want to complicate matters.

“It’s my sense that all eyes are now focused on North Korea, and how to make progress on this issue, and I just think the Trump administration does not want to muddy the waters by raising too many issues with the Chinese at the same time,” she said.

In the meantime, the military has conducted other operations in the region, each publicized on various Twitter accounts.

On February 6, U.S. Pacific Command (Pacom) tweeted that the destroyer USS John McCain was patrolling the South China Sea.

U.S. Pacific Fleet tweeted on February 15 that a B-1B bomber flew over the Philippine Sea, east of the South China Sea, on February 14. Pacom also tweeted about the bomber on February 21.

On February 21, the Navy published a story about the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and its strike group beginning routine operations in the South China Sea on February 18. The last time the Vinson was deployed to the region was in 2015.

A defense official insisted it is still the policy to conduct FONOPs in the South China Sea, and that they will continue to be done. However, many hope to see something soon.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) warned that the Chinese were planning to take bolder steps.

“China is now asserting itself in a way that [is] confirming their belief that they should be the major power in Asia, and they view the last 200 years of non-domination as an aberration of history, and they are asserting those efforts to control the seas in the Asia Pacific region, and part of it is filling in these islands, building runways, putting in gun emplacements, etc., in total violation of international law and international tribunal rule that they were in violation of international law. But despite that, they are doing that,” he said in a recent Facebook Live town hall.

“The next step you’re going to see Chinese take, is that they’re going to demand flight plans for planes that overfly these islands… It is a dangerous move, the Chinese are acting in a very dangerous fashion,” he said.

“I hope we will see some policy reviews on these issues soon, and we’ll actually see a policy in place, but on the South China Sea, I just don’t see anything happening yet,” Glaser said.

“I would like to think that FONOPs will be conducted routinely. It’s been since last October,” she added.

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