The Obama administration very much wants a diplomatic success somewhere in the world. So when the president orders the head of the U.S. Navy to meet with his Chinese counterpart and find areas of cooperation, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate. But the possibility that the Chinese Navy will gain real insight into how our aircraft carriers operate is worrying our Pacific allies and could compromise our security.
The order to sit down with China’s Admiral Wu Shengli came from the president through Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to the chief of naval operations, Admiral Jonathan Greenert, last year. It followed Obama’s meeting with Chinese president Xi at Sunnylands in June 2013. Greenert then met with Admiral Wu in September 2013—the first of four meetings—and they identified eight areas of possible cooperation.
The first was an unprecedented invitation to China to participate in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises, the biennial naval maneuvers that are the world’s largest. This year RIMPAC involved 22 nations, 49 surface ships, and 6 submarines. China sent four warships to the maneuvers, which took place in June and July off Hawaii. But in an unexplained display of—something—China also sent an electronic intelligence ship to spy on the exercises.
The second area was a Chinese request to send their “experts” aboard an American aircraft carrier to learn about “maintenance and tactics.” Greenert’s response was “We’re not ready for that.” Yet he left the door open: “We have to manage our way through this.”
Sharing carrier secrets is a bad idea, one that’s coming not from naval officers, but from their civilian overseers. Joint exercises and military exchange programs are widely believed to reduce the chances of armed misunderstandings. Personal relationships, familiarization with another navy’s ways of doing things, and protocols for CUES—codes for unplanned encounters at sea—reduce the risk of unintended consequences. And those have been the principal focus of the admirals’ discussions.
But the desire to secure some fleeting positive headlines—and perhaps some sincere goodwill—in an ever-more contentious world should not trump long-term security interests. In the words of Admiral James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander at NATO, “While we want to have the most positive military-to-military relationships possible, such activities have to take into account the need to protect our most sensitive equipment, tactics, and procedures. Nations must have common sense as well as good intentions.”
An aircraft carrier allows a nation to project power far beyond the range of land-based planes and forces. Helping China to extend its military reach is not something the United States should be encouraging or enabling. A new poll from the Pew Research Center found that a majority of citizens in 11 Asian nations are “concerned that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors will lead to a military conflict.”
Ninety-three percent of Filipinos surveyed feared the possibility of conflict with China. Similarly, fully 85 percent of Japanese and 84 percent of Vietnamese fear armed conflict with China. China’s recent two-month-long stationing of an oil rig off Vietnam and Beijing’s provocative moves over the Senkaku Islands give these allies legitimate reasons for concern.
The distance between Shanghai and contested areas in the South China Sea is more than 1,100 miles. With the introduction of a Chinese aircraft carrier into the region, that distance becomes less of an impediment to an assertive China. As retired Vice Admiral William Douglas Crowder, the former commander of the Seventh Fleet in the Pacific, notes, “If our friends in Asia become convinced that the United States lacks the ability or political will to stand up to PRC intimidation over territorial disputes, they will be forced, however reluctantly, to make their best deal with the PRC. And it won’t likely be a very good deal for them.”
Which brings us back to Admiral Wu’s request for greater insight into American carrier expertise. Since 1985, the Chinese have purchased three Soviet-era carriers along with an Australian ship of World War II design. One, now called the Liaoning, was bought from Ukraine. About 60 percent of the 999-foot ship was replaced with new Chinese electronics and mechanicals, and it was commissioned in 2012.
The Chinese then assigned stealthy, supersonic J-15 Flying Sharks to the air wing. The J-15 was introduced in 2009, and is considered by many to be somewhat more advanced than our own carrier-based F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, though somewhat less capable than the problem-prone F-35s designed to replace our aging attack-fighters.