US National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair told a congressional hearing that “preparations for a Taiwan conflict” still drive the modernization goals of the Chinese military and that the recent naval incidents in the South China Sea were part of a plan by Beijing to expand its influence.
Testifying before a hearing of the Senate Armed Services committee on worldwide threats, Blair said: “Taiwan, as an area of attention in US-China relations, has substantially relaxed. Leaders on both sides of the straits are cautiously optimistic about less confrontational relations.”
“Nonetheless, preparations for a Taiwan conflict drive the modernization goals of the People’s Liberation Army. But in addition to that, China’s security interests are broadening. A full civilian and military space capability, formal capabilities in cyberspace are rapidly developing,” he said.
“China will attempt to develop at least a limited naval projection capability, which is already reflected in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia, and we can talk about the incident that happened recently in the South China Sea,” Blair said.
Washington military circles remain dominated by reports from the US Navy that five Chinese ships harassed the US submarine surveillance vessel USNS Impeccable on Sunday in the latest of seven incidents over the last few days.
On Tuesday, Blair said that the confrontation was the most serious military incident involving the two powers since a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan island in April 2001.
Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project for the Federation of American Scientists, said that it was all part of “a wider and dangerous cat and mouse game between US and Chinese submarines and their hunters.”
Pentagon reports said US surveillance vessels have been “subjected to aggressive behavior, including dozens of fly-bys by Chinese Y-12 maritime surveillance aircraft.”
The incident on Sunday occurred in international waters about 120km south of the Chinese naval base near Yulin on Hainan.
Kristensen says China has started operating new nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines from the base and the US is “busy collecting data on the submarines and seafloor to improve its ability to detect the submarines in peacetime and more efficiently hunt them in case of war.”
The Federation of American Scientists is reporting that the Impeccable is equipped with the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS), a passive linear underwater surveillance array attached to a tow cable.
SURTASS was developed as a submarine detection system for deep waters and the US Navy wants to add an active low frequency array to improve long-range detection of submarines in shallow waters.
Intelligence sources say that Impeccable was actually monitoring the Shang-class (Type-093) nuclear-powered attack submarine, a new class China is building to replace the old Han-class and which has recently been seen at the Yulin base.
“The incident begs the question who, or at what level, in the Chinese government was the harassment in international waters ordered,” Kristensen said.
“The incident will make life harder for those in the Obama administration who want to ease the military pressure on US-Chinese relations and easier for hardliners to argue their case,” he said.
The Pentagon said in a statement: “On March 8, 2009, five Chinese vessels shadowed and aggressively maneuvered in dangerously close proximity to USNS Impeccable, in an apparent coordinated effort to harass the US ocean surveillance ship while it was conducting routine operations in international waters.”
China views almost the entire South China Sea as its territory — a claim that is strongly disputed by the US.
The incident came just a week after China and the US resumed military-to-military talks following a five-month suspension over US arms sales to Taiwan.
And it came just as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi (楊潔箎) arrived in Washington for talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner, and for meetings at the White House.
The State Department, which has already protested the incident to Beijing, will bring it up again with Yang.
A State Department spokesman said: “I have no way of knowing why the Chinese did what they did. I really don’t know. I can only tell you that we believe we were operating in international waters.”
Democratic Senator Jim Webb, speaking at the Armed Services Committee hearing, said China had begun a new phase in its military development by “beginning to articulate roles and missions that go beyond its immediate territorial interest.”
“I’m very concerned it ties in with the incident that we saw with the naval ship. They have been expanding their military,” he said.
“They claim Taiwan, obviously. They claim the Senkaku Islands, which are between Taiwan and Japan. Japan also has sovereignty over those at the moment. They claim the Paracels, which Vietnam claims. They claim the Spratlys, which Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia claim,” the senator said.
“They claim lost territories basically wherever you can find a piece of Chinese porcelain from 500 years ago,” Webb said.
Responding to the senator, Blair said: “As far as the Southeast Asia-South China Sea activities of China, they seem to be more military aggressive. I think that is a trend.”
“I think the debate is still on in China as to whether, as their military power increases, it will be used for good or for pushing people around,” Blair said.
Chinese military chiefs believe the Impeccable was on a spying mission, state media reported yesterday.
“Top military officials lash out at US espionage,” the English-language China Daily newspaper said in a front-page article.
“What was the ship doing? Anyone with eyes can see and our navy can see even more clearly,” the paper quoted Vice Admiral Jin Mao (金矛), former vice commander of the navy, as saying.
“It’s like a man with a criminal record wandering just outside the gate of a family home. When the host comes out to find out what he is doing there, the man complains that the host had violated his rights,” he was quoted as saying.
The paper also reported that Rear Admiral Zhang Deshun (張德順), deputy chief-of-staff of the navy, had called the US vessel a spy ship, but it did not elaborate.
After the US said overnight it would keep up its naval operations in the international waters of the South China Sea, the Chinese foreign ministry issued a statement repeating its stance that the US Navy was in the wrong.
“China has lodged a solemn representation to the United States as the USNS Impeccable conducted activities in China’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea without China’s permission,” ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu (馬朝旭) said.
“We demand that the United States take effective measures to prevent similar acts from happening,” he said in a statement published on the ministry’s Web site.
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