The Navy’s top commander in the Pacific said yesterday that a Chinese submarine risked setting off a military confrontation by closely shadowing a U.S. aircraft carrier sailing near Japan.
“It illustrates the primary reason why we are trying to push to have better military-to-military relationships” with China, said Adm. William J. Fallon, in his first public comments on the U.S.-China naval encounter disclosed Monday by The Washington Times.
China’s government, meanwhile, said it was unaware of the incident.
“I have not heard of such a report,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said, when asked about The Times report. China’s defense policy is “based on self-defense,” she said.
A Song-class Chinese submarine equipped with wake-homing torpedos and anti-ship cruise missiles surfaced within five miles of the USS Kitty Hawk in waters near Okinawa on Oct. 26 in what U.S. defense officials said was a provocative act.
Defense officials believe the Chinese submarine was practicing for tracking and targeting carriers.
Pentagon officials said the matter likely will be raised during defense-policy coordination talks with Chinese military officials set to begin Dec. 7 in Washington.
“Maritime safety is on the agenda,” a spokesman said.
A Pentagon spokesman said yesterday he was not aware than any protest had been lodged with the Chinese over the incident in the East China Sea near Okinawa.
According to the officials, China has refused since 1998 to agree to notify the Pentagon about its naval movements, something U.S. officials say could help avoid incidents at sea, such as the submarine encounter, that might trigger a conflict.
Adm. Fallon sought to play down the incident. He said describing the covert underwater tracking of the carrier as “stalking” was “sensational.”
But he acknowledged that the submarine’s unannounced surfacing so close to the carrier was risky and in other circumstances might have produced a shootout.
“The fact that you have military units that would operate in close proximity to each other offers the potential for events that would not be what we would like to see — the potential for miscalculation,” Adm. Fallon said during a break in a 23-nation meeting of defense chiefs in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Adm. Fallon said that the Kitty Hawk and escorting warships were conducting exercises at the time of the incident, but the maneuvers did not include anti-submarine activities.
“But if they had been, and this Chinese submarine happened to come in the middle of this, then this could well have escalated into something that was very unforeseen.” He did not elaborate.
Navy officials also sought to portray the submarine encounter as benign because China and the United States are not at war.
It was not the first time the Kitty Hawk was shadowed by a Chinese submarine, and the Navy’s relatively timid response last month contrasts sharply with its reaction to a 1994 encounter.
For two days in October 1994, aircraft from the Kitty Hawk chased a Chinese nuclear submarine to within three miles of the Chinese coast after the submarine was detected shadowing the carrier battle group about 200 miles away in the Yellow Sea.
China responded by threatening to shoot down the U.S. anti-submarine warfare aircraft and flew its fighters in the direction of the carrier.
“It was quite upsetting to me when I read of a Chinese sub tracking our fleet in the Pacific and we didn’t even know it. That’s bothers me a lot,” said Rep. C.W. Bill Young, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee.
The incident is a warning Congress needs to fund defenses against threats other than those related to the war on terror, such as the potential threats posed by Iran, North Korea and China, Mr. Young said.
“We know China is challenging us economically,” he said. “The Chinese are building a massive military system. We know the Iranians are doing the same thing.”
The incident is a setback for Adm. Fallon’s ambitious program to develop closer ties between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, which were put on hold in April 2001 after a Chinese fighter collided with a U.S. surveillance aircraft off the coast of China.
Disclosure of the submarine encounter comes as the head of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Gary Roughead, is holding talks in China with Chinese navy leaders.
“One of the reasons he’s in China is to be present at the very first exercise” between the U.S. and Chinese navies, Adm. Fallon said. “It’s a modest search-and-rescue exercise, but it’s a start … .”
The search-and-rescue exercise is to take place Sunday near the port of Zhanjiang, in southern China.
U.S. officials who are skeptical of closer military contacts say China has used the exchanges in the past to gather valuable war-fighting information from the visits.
In one case several years ago, a Navy officer revealed to a visiting Chinese admiral a key vulnerability of U.S. aircraft carriers that led China to buy wake-homing torpedoes from Moscow.
c Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report, which is based in part on wire service reports.