The Obama administration continued to send mixed signals to China regarding its aggression in the South China Sea by criticizing aggressive behavior in the area while inviting the People’s Liberation Army to take part in a large international naval exercise this summer.

China has been aggressively building up military capabilities on disputed South China Sea islands while US forces seek to bolster regional alliances and partnerships to keep the sea free and open to commerce.

The dispute was on display last week as Defense Secretary Ash Carter made a high profile visit to the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis as it plied waters of the South China Sea that China is claiming is mostly its sovereign waters.

Meanwhile, China’s Defense Ministry announced Friday that one of China’s two most powerful generals, Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Fan Changlong, visited the disputed island of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands near Philippines where China is said to be building a large military base.

China’s Gen. Fan Changlong

Fan led a delegation of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers for an inspection of what China calls the Nansha Islands and briefings on construction projects – despite the fact that Chinese spokesmen have said previously that China had complete all island construction.

The ministry, in a statement, made no mention of the large runway being built on the reef that the Pentagon has said will be used to accommodate military aircraft, including jet fighters capable of controlling the airspace over the region. Instead, the ministry said the only construction involved lighthouses, weather stations, ocean observation centers and research facilities.

Sino-US war of words

Pentagon officials said the visits by the defense secretary and military commission vice chairman were clearly timed to coincide as part of a war of words over the South China Sea.

China in recent months has stepped up criticism of the United States over its support for regional allies like the Philippines, which is expected to win a favorable international court ruling that would set back Beijing’s program of seeking control over 90% of the South China Sea through an ill-defined Nine Dash Line that was declared over most of the waters.

US Adm. Harry Harris

In response, the United States, after years of ignoring the Chinese hegemony in the region, began pushing back under the new US Pacific Command leader, Adm. Harry Harris, who has publicly denounced what he called China’s “Great Wall of Sand” – the buildup up of military bases on disputed islands.

As an indication of increasing tensions between the United States and China, Carter canceled plans to visit China during his swing through Asia that included a stop in India that Washington is seeking to have join a growing network of Asian states concerned about Chinese regional hegmonism. Carter had been invited to visit Beijing last November, and the Pentagon said the cancelation was due to unspecified scheduling problems. But privately some US officials admitted Carter deliberately put off the visit over the South China Sea dispute.

Aboard the Stennis, that was sailing some 60 miles off the coast of the Philippines, Carter brought with him Manila’s Defense Minister Voltaire Gazmin, in an effort to highlight growing defense relations.

The United States and Philippines recently concluded an enhanced defense agreement designed to bolster Philippines military forces. US warplanes were deployed to the Philippines last week as the first step in the US buildup. The two countries also plan to conduct joint naval patrols in the South China Sea.

Carter told sailors on the carrier that as a result of the new agreement as well as the US Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, the defense alliance is “as close as it’s been in years.”

On China’s aggression, Carter said: “In the South China Sea, China’s actions in particular are causing anxiety and raising regional tensions.” The activities are prompting nations throughout the Asia Pacific to reach out to the United States “to uphold the rules and principles that have allowed the region to thrive, and we’re answering that call,” he noted.

The Chinese have been pushing back, asserting that it is the United States that is militarizing the sea. Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesman Yang Yunjun recent denounced the increased US-Philippines defense accord, noting US forces are returning after leaving bases in the 1990s.

“To strengthen military alliance is a reflection of Cold War mentality, and it is in the opposite direction of the trend of an era for peaceful development and win-win cooperation,” Yang said March 31. For the Chinese, “Cold War mentality” is code for anti-communism, since during the Cold War, the United States shifted sharply toward China in countering the Soviet Union.

“We demand related parties to abandon the outdated Cold War mentality,” Yang said. “When carrying out bilateral military cooperation, it should not target at the third party, it should not undermine the third party’s interests and it should not affect the regional peace and stability.”

RIMPAC as mixed signal

The Pentagon’s efforts to reassure Southeast Asian allies, however is suffering from frequent a mixed message of resolve. During the Carter visit to the Stennis, the defense secretary defended the decision to allow Chinese warships to take part in the upcoming Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC exercises, the world’s largest international naval exercises set to begin June 26.

RIMPAC 2014 exercise

A sailor asked: “Something you may know is China’s misbehaving right now, but I was just wondering why we’re still allowing them to participate in RIMPAC?”

Carter replied that the Chinese were not disinvited because of the current policy of seeking include all states in the exercise. “We’re still taking the approach that everybody ought to work together here, so if the Chinese want to participate, I think it’s the right place for us to be,” he said.

Chinese participation in RIMPAC has its critics, including the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain who said last year that the Pentagon should disinvite China from naval maneuvers because of its South China Sea island building and militarization in the region.

Additionally, Chinese leader Xi Jinping in September promised that China would not militarize the disputed islands.

But since then, China has continued its military buildup, deploying anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on Woody Island in the Paracels chain, and recently jet fighter aircraft.

Last week’s visits by US and Chinese defense and military leaders to the South China Sea represent the latest salvo in ongoing information war that appears to be growing. With the United States sending mixed signals about how to deal with growing Chines hegemony instead of a well-orchestrated information campaign designed to dissuade China, analysts say Beijing is likely to gain the upper hand over the coming months.

Bill Gertz

Bill Gertz is a journalist and author who has spent decades covering defense and national security affairs. He is the author of six national security books, including iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age (Threshold Editions).

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