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Red China & Red Lines

10:20 AM, Jan 12, 2007 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Bill Gertz reported yesterday on high-level discussions between U.S. and Chinese military officials over an incident that occurred in the western Pacific on October 27, 2006. Gertz was the first to report the incident in which a Chinese Song class submarine surfaced not more than 5 miles from the USS Kitty Hawk. The submarine remained undetected by the carrier and the accompanying warships until after it surfaced.

From Gertz:

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.

When Gertz originally reported the incident, he spoke with Richard Fisher, a Chinese military specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center "who called the submarine incident alarming. 'Given the long range of new Chinese sub-launched anti-ship missiles and those purchased from Russia . . . It will likely happen again, only because Chinese submarine captains of 40 to 50 new modern submarines entering their navy will want to test their mettle against the 7th Fleet.'"

Other experts on the Chinese military have warned that such provocations have an alarming potential to spiral into a major confrontation between the United States and China. Larry Wortzel, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and a leading expert on Chinese military policy, spoke on China's military ambitions in space at the National Press Club in November. (A transcript of the event is available in pdf here.) Wortzel spoke specifically about the need to avoid a repeat of this latest incident:

With respect to the goal the PLA has set of attacking a U.S. aircraft carrier battle group at sea, we don't know, from their writings, whether their war plans--believe it or not, we all have war plans--are for a conventional, a nuclear or a high-altitude electro-magnetic pulse burst. But the PLA sees the goal of attacking a deployed American carrier battle group as realistic and achievable. Think of the implications of that! The Enterprise docked in Norfolk just before Thanksgiving and there are 5,000 people on the Enterprise alone. The casualties at Pearl Harbor reached only 2,400. The World Trade Center wasn't much more than 2,400. Thus, when PLA officers routinely talk about being able to attack and sink an American aircraft carrier, they aren't thinking really hard about what comes back at them after that.

I would argue that one of the implications of what seems to be serious research and writing in China is that the United States ought to be engaged in equally serious defense talks with the senior PLA leaders on what the red lines are in warfare. The anti-satellite programs that I talked about affect our strategic warning. The Chinese need to understand that we are very sensitive about interference with our strategic warning and about the ability of the United States to gather indications of hostility. When another nation interferes with that capability, we tend to take that as an indication that the nation may want to attack us. If you have been in the strategic warning system awhile, you know that the United States talked to the Soviets about this at great length. We still talk to the Russians about it. Senior American defense and foreign policy leaders have not had this dialogue with the Chinese. The PLA won't even get serious about a dialogue with the Pacific commander about naval incidents at sea, to make sure that the next time a Song submarine broaches the surface, it doesn't do it under the Kitty Hawk carrier battle group and bump into it. The PLA has avoided such discussions despite repeated requests from the U.S., and we need to talk to them about these matters.

Gertz's reporting makes clear that the Chinese are still unwilling to engage in a serious dialogue over how to avoid a future confrontation at sea or in space, where the potential for unintended consequences is even greater.