WSJ: As China Expands Its Navy, the U.S. Grows Wary

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China’s navy chief, Adm. Wu Shengli, strolled the Harvard University campus in a tweed blazer and slacks during a visit to the U.S. last fall, joking with students and quizzing school officials about enrolling some of his officers.

[Reposted from the Wall Street Journal  |  Jeremy Page  |  March 30, 2015]

A few days earlier, he became the first Chinese navy chief to attend a 113-nation naval forum in Rhode Island, where he hailed U.S.-China military ties and discussed working together on global maritime challenges.

Shortly after his U.S. visit, Adm. Wu took another trip—this time to the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea where his country appears to be building a network of artificial island fortresses in contested waters. It was his first known visit to facilities U.S. officials fear could be used to enforce Chinese control of nearly all the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.

As Adm. Wu seeks closer exchanges with the U.S. in his quest to build a modern global navy, Washington faces the dilemma of dealing with China as both a partner and a potential adversary challenging U.S. naval dominance in Asia. “I would say that he doesn’t want to build a navy that’s equivalent to the U.S.,” said Adm. Gary Roughead, the retired U.S. Chief of Naval Operations. “He wants to build a navy that surpasses the U.S.”

Adm. Wu, navy chief since 2006, is one of the architects of China’s maritime expansion, sending ships and submarines deep into the Indian and Pacific oceans, launching China’s first aircraft carrier and overseeing operations to assert control of waters claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations.

He also has become China’s point man for cinching closer U.S. military ties, a priority of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Adm. Wu met his counterpart, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, four times over the past two years, forging guidelines on how Chinese and U.S. vessels can safely interact.

Adm. Wu now wants deeper exchanges, including help developing aircraft carrier operations and improving education for his naval officers. He says such exchanges would allow China to better work alongside the U.S. to maintain global security, according to people who have spoken with him.

Adm. Greenert and other senior U.S. Navy officials also advocate closer engagement to encourage China to embrace international norms. Some in the Pentagon and Congress, however, worry Adm. Wu’s real mission is absorbing American know-how to advance territorial gains and boost China’s ability to thwart U.S. intervention.

Adm. Wu has been described by the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI, as the “most vocal and successful advocate for a greatly expanded mission” for the Chinese navy since Adm. Liu Huaqing, who first proposed turning China into a sea power in the 1980s.

He is also a so-called princeling, as offspring of senior Communist Party figures are known, and said by defense officials to have strong backing from President Xi—another princeling—who has put sea power at the core of his vision for China. That may explain why Adm. Wu, 69 years old, has kept his post so long. He said during his U.S. visit he expected to retain the job until 2017.

The conflicting views of Adm. Wu mirror a deeper debate over whether China and the U.S. can reconcile their competing strategic interests in Asia and forge a genuinely cooperative military relationship in the 21st Century.

The Pentagon last month denied a proposal by Adm. Wu—and backed by Adm. Greenert—for a port visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier to mainland China this year.

Sen. John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, opposed the visit. He also was one of four Republican and Democratic senators who wrote a letter this month protesting China’s island building in the South China Sea. “We believe that a formal policy and clearly articulated strategy to address these forms of Chinese coercion are essential,” said the letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

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China appears to be building a network of artificial island fortresses, shown here, in contested waters in the South China Sea.

The U.S. should consider what actions it could take to slow or stop the island-building, as well as determine what security cooperation should be cut if the work continued, said the letter, also signed by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Chinese officials say the islands are sovereign territory and work there is not targeted at other countries.

Officially, the Pentagon says defense ties between the two nations continue to improve based on the commitments made by Presidents Barack Obama and Xi during their first summit in 2013.

Privately, though, some Pentagon officials say they are waiting to see if Adm. Wu’s promises, especially on avoiding dangerous sea and air encounters, translate into action. Adm. Wu isn’t scheduled to meet with his U.S. counterpart this year. Asked at a conference this month about what naval exchanges with China were planned in 2015, Adm. Greenert said: “Not a lot. Not as much as I would hope.”

Before his Harvard visit, Adm. Wu told a Hong Kong TV station that Beijing and Washington couldn’t resolve all their disputes, such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, because they had “differences of principle.” He said, “America would not be America” if it ceased aerial surveillance operations around China’s coast. But he also pledged to continue intercepting such missions.

Adm. Wu couldn’t be reached for comment, and China’s defense ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment. Asked at a news conference about Adm. Wu’s visit to the Spratly Islands, a defense ministry spokesman said only that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the area.

China’s last sea battle

Adm. Wu was born in 1945. His name translates as “Victory Wu,” commemorating the defeat of Japan in World War II, according to ONI. His father was a Communist commander who served as vice governor of Zhejiang province.

Adm. Wu joined the People’s Liberation Army at age 19 and went on to captain frigates and destroyers. In 1988, he commanded a detachment of destroyers, one of which helped defeat Vietnamese forces in a skirmish over Spratlys reefs, according to official accounts. That was China’s last sea battle.

Adm. Wu’s authority is technically limited in a system where China’s armed forces are commanded by the 11-man Central Military Commission, headed by President Xi and long dominated by the army.

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But Adm. Wu—as the only sailor on the commission since 2007—has been in a unique position to influence leaders on maritime issues. That year, for example, he commissioned and led a three-year study of the South China Sea’s strategic importance.

He has overseen the replacement of Soviet-era ships with advanced, domestically-produced vessels, including destroyers, frigates and nuclear submarines. China commissioned its first aircraft carrier in 2012.

Under Adm. Wu, the navy has expanded its reach far beyond coastal defense, for years its primary mission. In 2008, Chinese warships were deployed to Africa’s coast for the first time in 600 years to join antipiracy patrols. In 2011, the navy conducted its first operation in the Mediterranean, evacuating Chinese citizens from Libya, and, in 2013, it sent a nuclear submarine to the Indian Ocean for the first time.

In recent writings and speeches, Adm. Wu has argued that China’s “century of humiliation,” beginning with its defeat by the British in the First Opium War in 1842, was caused by insufficient naval power.

Today, “the sea is no obstacle: the history of national humiliation is gone, never to return,” he said in August to mark the anniversary of the start of the 1894-1895 Sino-Japanese war, which China lost.

The U.S. is boosting its submarine and anti-sub forces in Asia to counter China’s fast-growing undersea firepower. (Originally published 10/24/14)

In private, he talks openly of the emerging contest with the U.S., even challenging America to send more ships to Asia because that would prompt Chinese leaders to boost naval spending, say people who have dealt with him.

At the same time, those people say, Adm. Wu acknowledges his navy’s lack of combat experience and limited cooperation with other naval powers—weaknesses, he said, the U.S. could help remedy.

Refining China’s aircraft carrier operations is an example. Another is enrolling officers at top U.S. universities and defense academies, as well as creating a Chinese military college modeled on the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, which teaches liberal arts in addition to the sciences.

Limits on U.S. help

During his campus visit, Adm. Wu talked about his interest in sending officers to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said people in the tour.

He showed a flash of anger over legislative restrictions on defense exchanges with China designed to prevent activity that could enhance its combat capabilities. Chinese officers, for example, can visit but not enroll in U.S. defense colleges.

Adm. Wu said: “ ‘Before, China was afraid of Americans and other foreigners going into China and stealing secrets,’ ” according to Shuang Lu, a Chinese doctoral student who showed him around campus. “ ‘Now, is America afraid of China?’ ”

Those in favor of closer engagement say the U.S. has an opportunity to help shape the evolution of China’s navy. Adm. Greenert portrays Adm. Wu as a fellow mariner who shares the goal of eliminating misunderstandings at sea.

Last year, China, the U.S. and other Western Pacific naval powers signed a code of conduct for unplanned sea encounters. In February, a U.S. Navy ship practiced with a Chinese vessel in the South China Sea.

And China made its debut in June at the world’s largest naval exercises off Hawaii, which are led by the U.S. every two years.

The value of engagement, Adm. Greenert said in an interview, is in “determining who you can trust, who you can talk directly with, person to person, look them in the eyes and understand where they’re coming from so that when a really complicated matter comes, you’re not starting from scratch.”

Adm. Greenert cited the historic relationship between Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, a Soviet military commander, and Adm. William Crowe, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs—ties, he said, that eased tensions at the close of the Cold War.

There also have been setbacks with China. U.S. forces detected a Chinese spy ship monitoring the Hawaii-area naval drills from international waters. And in August, the Pentagon said Chinese fighters flew dangerously close to U.S. surveillance aircraft over the South China Sea. China said its pilots flew safely.

Some U.S. defense officials doubt Adm. Greenert and Adm. Wu can build enough trust to be useful in a crisis. Talk of a hotline failed to gain traction.

In February, 29 Chinese naval officers visited the U.S. Naval Academy and U.S. Naval War College. American officers will make a reciprocal visit later this year. But Pentagon officials say they want more from China before they approve such ambitious exchanges as the carrier visit. One goal is an air-encounters pact in time for President Xi’s U.S. visit in September.

Views in Congress have hardened after the latest reports of China’s island-building in the South China Sea, which U.S. officials see as a navy project.

Adm. Wu hasn’t spoken publicly about the island work. In a 2009 article in the Chinese navy’s newspaper, he described the upgrade of South China Sea island facilities, which included new satellite communications, and called for more.

Taiwan’s intelligence chief, Lee Shying-jow, told a parliamentary hearing in October that Adm. Wu spent a week in September touring the artificial islands. Mr. Lee said Adm. Wu was, in effect, declaring, “I have an entire strategic plan for the South China Sea” that entailed turning small reefs into island fortresses. “We are indeed very worried,” Mr. Lee said.

While at Harvard, Adm. Wu conveyed a very different message, turning on the charm as he confided that he had tried to persuade his granddaughter to apply, and teased staff about their traditional rivalry with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he also toured.

At the end of his visit, he bade farewell in the style of U.S. military officers, slapping a personalized commemorative coin into the palms of his hosts.

—Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.

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