McCain: Pentagon silence on South China Sea patrol 'puzzling'

McCain: Pentagon silence on South China Sea patrol 'puzzling'
© Francis Rivera

Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainMartha McSally fundraises off 'liberal hack' remark to CNN reporter Meghan McCain blasts NY Times: 'Everyone already knows how much you despise' conservative women GOP senator calls CNN reporter a 'liberal hack' when asked about Parnas materials MORE (R-Ariz.) is slamming the Pentagon for not yet providing more details on a Navy patrol more than a month ago in the disputed South China Sea.

“Five weeks to respond to a simple letter is too long," McCain said in a written statement this week. “Whether these delays are the result of the micromanagement of the National Security Council or the bureaucracy of the Pentagon, they are unacceptable nonetheless.”

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Last month, McCain sent a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, asking the Pentagon to publicly clarify the intent of a patrol near the Spratly Islands. He asked for the information as soon as possible.

“Given the sensitive political dynamics and detailed legal implications of our actions, it is vital that there be no misunderstanding about our objectives in either the Asia-Pacific region or within the international community,” he wrote in the letter.

In October, the Navy sent a destroyer within 12 nautical miles of an artificial island built by China in the Spratly archipelago. The move infuriated the Chinese.

Pentagon officials have been reluctant to talk about the patrol in public, with Carter telling the Senate Armed Services Committee, “I don’t like in general the idea of talking about our military operations.”

Reports originally described the patrol as a freedom of navigation operation, meant to show China that artificial islands don’t give it territorial claims to the waters.

But reports later said the destroyer avoided military drills during the passage, which some said could be interpreted as "innocent passage," or when a ship takes measures to convey it is innocently passing through waters belonging to another nation.

McCain’s letter specifically asked the Pentagon to clarify whether the patrol was a freedom of navigation operation or innocent passage.

In his statement Tuesday, McCain said the Pentagon’s continued silence sends mixed messages. 

“The Pentagon’s puzzling silence about the operation led to confusion not only about what had taken place, but America’s strategic intent,” he said. “That’s why I sent a short letter to Secretary Carter asking that he clarify some basic information about the operation. Five weeks later, I have yet to receive a response.”