NEWS AND ANALYSIS:
Top government and military leaders are hosting a senior Chinese general this week, as the communist government is stepping up harsh rhetoric and blaming the United States for new tensions in the South China Sea.
People’s Liberation Army Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff and China’s No. 3 military leader, toured the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in San Diego on Tuesday. He was in Washington for meetings Wednesday at the National Defense University and Pentagon as part of a five-day visit.
On the Reagan, Gen. Fang met with Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command who has sought to play down the growing military threat posed by China.
The four-star admiral told a reporter last year that his biggest worry in the Pacific is not China, but climate change, a key theme of the Obama administration’s agenda.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet Gen. Fang Thursday, when the topic of the South China Sea is expected to be a point of contention.
The two generals are scheduled to hold a press conference Thursday.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry called China’s setting up of a large oil rig near the disputed Paracel Islands “provocative,” according to a State Department spokeswoman who recounted the exchange between Mr. Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
The comment prompted Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying to shoot back: “It is the U.S. coming in and making a series of erroneous remarks about the issue in the waters, encouraging certain countries’ threatening and provocative behavior.”
Earlier, Ms. Hua accused the U.S. of making “irresponsible” comments about maritime disputes and urged Washington to “speak and act cautiously.”
Chinese spokesmen and state-run press outlets blamed the U.S. for heightened tensions that have included Chinese patrol boats firing water cannons at Vietnamese boats and threats against Philippines for its arrest last week of 11 Chinese fishermen.
On May 5, the Navy’s 7th Fleet command ship USS Blue Ridge encountered two Chinese warships near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, claimed by both the Philippines and China.
A fleet spokesman said a helicopter from the Blue Ridge photographed a Chinese frigate and destroyer near the shoal.
Ms. Hua bristled over a question about the encounter.
“The Chinese side has indisputable sovereignty over the various South China Sea islands, including [Scarborough Shoal], and their adjacent waters,” the spokeswoman said. “Routine patrols by Chinese naval vessels in relevant waters are justifiable, lawful, and absolutely normal. There is no need to make a fuss about that.”
The shoal encounter ended without incident, unlike the Dec. 5 near-collision between the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens and a Chinese warship in the South China Sea.
In that incident, the Cowpens was monitoring China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, near Hainan Island when a Chinese amphibious ship sailed within 100 yards in front of the cruiser and stopped, forcing the Cowpens to veer sharply to avoid a collision.
AN ILLEGAL CARRIER VISIT?
This week’s visit by a Chinese general to a U.S. aircraft carrier has renewed debate over whether the Pentagon is complying with legal restrictions imposed by Congress on military exchanges with China amid concerns that such visits boost the People Liberation Army (PLA) war-fighting capabilities.
The Pentagon, for more 15 years, has ignored the carrier visit restriction in the fiscal 2000 National Defense Authorization Act, even though it was a compromise during one of three visits to a carrier in the 1990s that prompted Congress to limit the exchanges.
During a carrier visit, a Chinese officer asked a Navy officer to identify the ship’s weakest point. The officer naively told him it was underneath the carrier where ammunition is stored. Within a few years of the incident, Beijing purchased precision-guided torpedoes from Russia that could strike the vulnerable point.
China regards U.S. carriers as having the most significant power projection capabilities. In response, Beijing has developed an array of high-technology arms to defeat them, including a unique DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile.
This week’s visit by Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of the general staff, to the USS Ronald Reagan in San Diego was 11th time the PLA has visited a carrier since 1994.
According to a Congressional Research Service report on Chinese military visits, eight carrier visits have taken place since the law went into effect. Only once, in 2006, were the Chinese blocked from getting a close look at a carrier during a stop in Hawaii, according to published accounts.
The restrictions went into effect in October 1999. The law states that the secretary of defense cannot allow any Chinese military visits that would produce “inappropriate exposure” that could assist PLA war-fighting in 12 prohibited areas:
• Force projection operations.
• Nuclear operations.
• Advanced combined-arms and joint combat operations.
• Advanced logistical operations.
• Chemical and biological defense and other capabilities related to weapons of mass destruction.
• Surveillance and reconnaissance operations.
• Joint war-fighting experiments and other activities related to transformations in warfare.
• Military space operations.
• Other advanced capabilities of the armed forces.
• Arms sales or military-related technology transfers.
• Release of classified or restricted information.
• Access to a Pentagon laboratory.
The PLA frequently has denounced the restrictions, as most Chinese military visits are dual purpose for propaganda and intelligence gathering.
A Joint Staff spokesman did not respond to an email asking if the carrier visit was legal. The Pentagon previously has said that lawyers review all exchanges to ensure compliance with the restrictions.
“Whether or not it is a violation of the law, it is simply a mistake to be giving Gen. Fang and his delegation of intelligence experts the benefit of visiting the world’s best aircraft carrier,” said Rick Fisher, a China military affairs experts with the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
“China’s trajectory is very clear: It will be projecting military power globally against American interests by the early 2020s, and we should be doing nothing to help them.”
WORK FOR ‘INFLUENCE’
Newly minted Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work issued a statement to the Pentagon workforce Wednesday that appears to play down the U.S. military’s role in projecting power. Instead, he urged Pentagon workers to help project “influence.”
Mr. Work, who took office May 5, formerly served in the Navy Department, and was one of the architects of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia policy, which congressional critics say lacks substance.
Defense officials said the policy was toned down by policymakers who feared upsetting Beijing with the original, muscular Air Sea Battle Concept, which called for new weapons and renewed alliances aimed at defeating China in a future conflict. The policy was transformed instead into a largely diplomatic and economic program lacking funding and other resources.
In his note, Mr. Work pledged “to do everything possible to maintain America’s military edge.”
“We are and will remain a global power whose position in the world is underpinned by our ability to project global influence in concert with other elements of national power, and our allies and partners overseas,” he said in nuanced language reflective of the administration’s policy of avoiding the use of military force.
“We must also balance the need to maintain the day-to-day readiness of our forces in order to project military power whenever and wherever needed with our ability to prevail against future threats and challenges,” Mr. Work said.
The challenge for Mr. Work and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is maintaining the technological edge and readiness of U.S. military forces at a time of fiscal austerity.
Under President Obama, the military has been forced to cut $465 billion in spending, and faces another $500 billion or more in future cuts.
The cuts come amid the need for new military equipment and weapons for modernization, and to replace worn-out equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• Contact Bill Gertz at @BillGertz.