Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The admiral in charge of the U.S. Pacific Fleet pressed Chinese military leaders to explain why an armed submarine challenged a U.S. aircraft carrier in the western Pacific by sailing within five miles of the warship, U.S. defense officials said.

The Chinese responded by claiming the Song-class submarine that surfaced near the USS Kitty Hawk on Oct. 27 was there by accident, and that it did not shadow the warship before making its presence known, the officials said.

Defense officials familiar with reports of closed-door military meetings in Beijing, Shanghai and Zhanjiang privately doubted the Chinese explanations and said it is more likely the Song-class diesel electric submarine was practicing anti-aircraft carrier operations.

Pacific Fleet Commander Adm. Gary Roughead raised the issue of the submarine encounter when he met during a six-day visit in November with Chinese military leaders.

The Chinese submarine was not detected by the Kitty Hawk, which was conducting routine exercises near Okinawa, or by accompanying warships. Navy officials called it an anti-submarine warfare lapse. Most ships have sonar that constantly scans waters around the ships for threatening vessels.

Adm. Michael Mullen, the chief of naval operations, said last month that U.S. anti-submarine defenses for the Pacific Fleet were reviewed to determine how the submarine was able to sneak up on the carrier.

The Chinese told Adm. Roughead that it was a “chance encounter” and that China’s military had no intention of stalking the Kitty Hawk. They also said the submarine surfaced deliberately to demonstrate that it had no hostile intent, the officials said.

“The Chinese also claimed they did not want the U.S. Navy to mistake the vessel for a submarine from Taiwan or Korea,” one official said. China has a large fleet of submarines that seldom operates so far from China’s coast, such as the deep-ocean encounter near Okinawa.

Another explanation from the Chinese military officials was that the submarine surfaced because officials were worried that being detected so close to the carrier would lead to a confrontation.

China’s military has rejected U.S. proposals to join in an agreement that would prevent such incidents at sea. A similar arrangement was used during the Cold War to avoid confrontations with Soviet naval vessels.

Chinese officials complained that the incident was made public by Pentagon officials opposed to military exchanges with the Chinese, and said U.S. and international press reports about the incident had made the matter more difficult to resolve.

The incident was first disclosed by The Washington Times on Nov. 13, a day after Adm. Roughead, who is a candidate to be the next U.S. Pacific commander, arrived in China for six days of talks.

The submarine encounter was a main issue on the U.S. agenda, and was the only contentious issue in what were otherwise described as friendly talks.

The defense officials disclosed some details of the meetings to counter public statements by Chinese government spokesmen.

Asked about the incident, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters in Beijing on Nov. 16 that The Times report “does not go along with fact.” She did not elaborate.

Pacific Fleet spokesman Capt. Scott Gureck declined to comment on Adm. Roughead’s talks in China.

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