US Admiral Samuel Locklear, the commander of US forces in Asia and the Pacific, has cautioned that the US and China have begun competing to see whose navy rules beneath the waves in the vast Pacific and Indian oceans.
In an interview at the US Pacific Command’s headquarters overlooking Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the admiral also suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) seems to have moved swiftly to exert control over China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Regarding submarines, Locklear estimates that China plans to acquire 80 submarines — some powered by diesel-electric engines, others by nuclear reactors — to expand its current fleet of 55 boats. He cited this expansion as an example of Beijing’s lack of transparency.
“Why do they need them, what are they for?” Locklear asked rhetorically.
By contrast, the US Pacific Fleet has 30 attack, two guided-missile and eight ballistic missile submarines. Under US President Barack Obama’s administration’s plan to “rebalance” US forces in the region, that number is scheduled to grow gradually.
In testimony to a US Congressional committee last month, Locklear said: “Both Russia and China are expected to soon field new ballistic missile submarines capable of ranging the US homeland,” meaning they would be able to target US cities and military bases.
The Pentagon’s annual report on Chinese military power, released last week, said that China’s new submarines would be armed with ballistic missiles able to travel 4,400 miles (7,081km).
Beijing’s most recent white paper on defense, released last month, said only that its submarine fleet was being modernized.
Locklear added that smaller nations in the region are expanding their submarine forces “as a potential counter to stronger neighbors.”
Press dispatches from Southeast Asia and India have reported Chinese submarines operating increasingly in the South China Sea and out into the Indian Ocean. Until now, China’s aerial defenses have been given greater attention outside of China.
In the interview, Locklear said — as US political and military leaders have for years — that the US is not seeking to “contain” China.
“We need to contain competition between the two powers to develop a stable security environment in the Asia-Pacific [region] that is capable of adjusting or flexing without breaking apart during a crisis,” he said.
On the issue of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control of the PLA, Locklear said: “It appears to me that President Xi has moved quickly to solidify control of the PLA under his leadership.”
In addition to being CCP general secretary, Xi is chairman of China’s Central Military Commission.
The CCP supposedly controls the PLA through the commission, but it now has only two civilian members, Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強). The other 10 members are generals or admirals in a group where consensus is often the rule.
Whether Xi will be able to exert his will on the group remains to be seen.
At the same time, Xi has sought to gain control over the maritime agencies known as the Nine Dragons, mythical monsters that stir up the sea.
Locklear said Xi had established a bureau to coordinate the activities of the various units operating in the South and East China seas.
Up until now, the agencies have been patrolling with a lack of coordination that has caused turmoil for Beijing and other governments.
Xi has evidently found it necessary to streamline controls over those bureaucratic centers because he wants to avoid a miscalculation that could have serious unintended consequences.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.