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China also threatened Japan after a naval confrontation between Japanese coast guard ships and a Chinese fishing vessel near the Senkaku Islands between Okinawa and Taiwan.

The Chinese maritime encroachment includes area of international waters in the Bohai Gulf, the Yellow Sea, the East China Sea and the South China Sea, Adm. Willard said.

He said recent statements from senior Obama administration officials at regional conferences in Asia prompted China to back off somewhat from the near-seas aggressiveness.

Adm. Willard also said China’s first aircraft carrier, a refurbished Russian ship, will begin sea trials as early as this summer, a development viewed with concern by nations in Asia.

China’s military has made advancements in numbers and capabilities for its submarine forces, which Adm. Willard described as a “sizable fleet” that is prompting other states in Asia, including Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia, to invest in their submarine forces.

Asked about the recent assessment of Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. that China poses the greatest threat to the United States, Adm. Willard said he disagreed. North Korea is a more “imminent threat,” while China’s military buildup is a “great challenge.”

“If I were asked what biggest challenge I face as the Pacific Command commander, I would tell you it’s the relationship between the United States and China, in order to advance that relationship to ultimately become a constructive partnership, if that’s possible,” he said.

On North Korea, Army Gen. Walter Sharp, commander of U.S. Forces Korea who appeared with Adm. Willard, told the hearing that he does not think North Korea will give up its nuclear arms - “not without a whole bunch of pressure from really everyone around the globe.”

Asked by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, about the nuclear talks, Gen. Sharp said: “To answer your question directly, no, I do not see that [North Korean leader Kim Jong-il] will give up his nuclear capability.”