On ancient maps, the edges carried the warning: Here be dragons! Admiral Gary Roughead, the Chief of US Naval Operations, implicitly gave the same warning in an interview with the Financial Times. The comments have been taken to suggest that he does not see the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – i.e., the Chinese navy – as an insuperable threat. This is consistent with his function as head of the United States Navy. I fully expect the CNO to be talking about how the Chinese navy is not yet a threat on par with the U.S., that they’re professionals but not there yet, that the technology they are developing will face American countermeasures, etc.

What is disturbing are the issues he artfully dodges:

What impact does China’s different view of rights within an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) have on U.S. naval operations? Admiral Roughead asserts that Chinese EEZ interpretations and their behavior at sea are two separate issues. But China’s irresponsible behavior around the USNS Impeccable and USNS Victorious belies Admiral Roughead’s words. The Chinese conducted themselves dangerously in those waters precisely because the U.S. vessels were operating in waters that China claims are within its EEZ, and from the Chinese perspective, this justified assertive—even aggressive—measures to try and compel the U.S. to leave.

Does it make a difference that China has been referring to the South China Sea as a “core interest?” Admiral Roughead diverts the interview to discuss the importance of fishing in addition to the potential oil and gas resources in the region. What he does not indicate is whether China’s claim affects either their behavior or our reactions. That some U.S. officials have denied that the Chinese have referred to the South China Sea as a “core interest” – when the Chinese themselves have – highlights the sensitivity with which Americans have been treating this Chinese claim—and raises the very real question of whether it is influencing American behavior.

That he is avoiding directly addressing these concerns suggests that these issues are far more sensitive to American decision makers than are the military capabilities of the Chinese navy – and suggests that the problems potentially looming for the U.S. Navy from China are as much political as they are technological. It may well be that it is easier for the U.S. to handle Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles than the political challenges Beijing is posing.