Why would a Chinese submarine shadow the USS Kitty Hawk and its battle group only weeks before Chinese military officials play host the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet? The incident, reported yesterday by The Washington Times, occurred at the end of October near Okinawa. It’s unusual both for Chinese submarines to follow U.S. ships and for the Chinese submarines to venture far from Chinese shores, Bill Gertz reported. Adm. Gary Roughead, commander of the Pacific Fleet, is in China this week, and this event is likely to cast a shadow over his meetings with Chinese military officials.
The incident fits disconcertingly well into a larger framework. China’s intent to shift the balance of power in the Pacific away from the United States is a recurring theme in the Pentagon’s annual reports on China’s military power. “The pace and scope of China’s military build-up already place regional military balances at risk,” the 2006 report states. The report also notes that “[c]urrent trends in China’s military modernization could provide China with a force capable of prosecuting a range of military operations in Asia — well beyond Taiwan — potentially posing a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region,” referring to the U.S. military. The diesel-powered Song-class submarine that surfaced five miles away from the USS Kitty Hawk on Oct. 26 lags considerably behind its American counterparts, but Washington should expect China to continue investing heavily in modernizing its military force.
China’s rhetorical commitment to a peaceful rise has been undermined by Beijing’s lack of transparency in all matters military and by its refusal to reciprocate U.S. efforts to build closer military ties. China has also consistently sidestepped opportunities to show itself as the “responsible stakeholder” in the international system that U.S. officials had hoped it would be, preferring a mercantilist approach of trading loans, arms deals and diplomatic shelter for oil and natural resources in the Middle East, Africa and South America.
Whether a Chinese submarine surfacing within torpedo range of a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group was intended to send a message to the United States is not clear. U.S. officials should nevertheless examine the worrisome episode with the Kitty Hawk both for what it is and for the larger trend it represents — a growing Chinese naval force capable of asserting a stronger presence in the Pacific.