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U.S. eyes China's naval power on high-level visit

Reuters | November 13, 2006

The commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet said on Monday he was seeking to understand the intent of China's naval build-up as he began a week-long trip aimed at deepening military ties.

His visit comes as a report in the Washington Times said a Chinese submarine stalked the U.S. navy aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk in the Pacific last month, highlighting friction between Washington and Beijing as China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) modernizes.

"When asked if the PLA navy is a threat, I've been on the record as saying no," Admiral Gary Roughead told reporters when asked if China's build-up posed a threat to the U.S. presence in the region or to Taiwan.

"But I really would like to know what the intent is in some of the developments that I see in the PLA navy," he added.

Taiwan is a self-governed island that Beijing claims as its own and says it must return to the mainland. China has said it would attack Taiwan if it formally declares independence.

China and the United States cut military contacts after a fighter jet collided with a U.S. surveillance plane in 2001, killing the Chinese pilot and forcing the U.S. crew to land in China, where they were held for 11 days.

But in the past year the two have been seeking to upgrade ties, with a series of exchanges and joint exercises.

Roughead was in Beijing to oversee a joint search-and-rescue operation between the two navies, following exercises in September with a Chinese warship and the U.S. navy off Hawaii.

The U.S. military also invited a Chinese delegation to observe naval exercises in June in the western Pacific.

But Washington, which has long complained of a lack of transparency in China's military modernization, has been pressing Beijing to reciprocate by giving U.S. forces more access to Chinese military exercises and sites.

During his visit, Roughead said he would meet PLA navy commander Vice Admiral Wu Shengli, Assistant Foreign Minister He Yafei and the commander of the South China Sea Fleet.

He said he hoped the meetings would shed light on the direction of China's naval build-up, which includes a growing submarine fleet and new ships with "blue water" capability.

"Clearly the growth in the capacity and capability of the navy since I've first been exposed to it in the 90s, the ability to go into the blue water is very, very clear," he said.

"I look forward to having discussions about what the vision is and perhaps what some of the operating doctrine might be."

He also said he hoped exchanges could help younger military leaders in China and the United States forge personal ties that could help avert conflict in the case of a "period of misunderstanding".

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