Chinese Navy Chief Visits U.S. Amid Tensions

Admiral welcomed despite new Chinese missile deployments, lasering of U.S. aircrews

Chinese Type 052D missile destroyer Hefei

Chinese Type 052D missile destroyer Hefei / Getty Images

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The commander of the Chinese navy is visiting the United States this week amid growing military and trade tensions between the United States and China.

People's Liberation Army Navy Vice Adm. Shen Jinlong is attending a Navy conference in Rhode Island and will visit the Pentagon later in the week, defense sources said.

A Pentagon spokesman had no immediate comment on the visit.

A Chinese military spokesman said last month that Shen would take part in the International Seapower Symposium at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. The symposium began Tuesday and concludes Friday.

Shen is expected to meet Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson during the Washington portion of the visit.

The visit comes amid an escalating trade war involving billions of dollars worth of tariffs aimed at ending what the Trump administration has said are Beijing's technology theft and unfair trade practices.

Shen, a close ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping, is one of only three senior PLA leaders to visit the United States during the Trump administration, which has taken a tougher posture toward Beijing than previous administrations.

The new National Defense Strategy labeled China a significant strategic competitor after decades of benign descriptions of the nuclear-armed communist dictatorship in Beijing.

U.S. military relations with China soured earlier this year when the Pentagon disinvited PLA ships from taking part in the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) military exercises.

Pentagon officials specifically cited China's continued militarization in the South China Sea as the reason for withdrawing the invitation for PLA to send warships to the world's largest international maneuvers.

During a visit to Beijing in June, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis raised China's deployment of anti-ship and air defense missiles on disputed South China Sea islands in talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Xi publicly promised in 2015 that China would not militarize the disputed islands in the sea that is used for some $5 trillion in annual trade.

Adm. Philip Davidson, commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, said in April that the military buildup in the sea means "China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea."

The Chinese military also came under criticism for firing a laser at U.S. military aircraft flying near the PLA overseas military base in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa. The laser firings injured the eyes of U.S. aircrews.

Mattis told reporters during his visit to China that the Pentagon was reviewing U.S.-China military exchanges that in the past were misused by Chinese military intelligence to obtain valuable intelligence and warfighting information from the visits.

Congress in 1999 passed a law restricting the Pentagon from conducting exchanges with the Chinese military in areas that could assist the PLA in developing weapons and warfighting capabilities.

No exchanges are permitted under the law in the areas of force projection, nuclear operations, joint combat, advanced logistics, chemical and biological defenses, surveillance and reconnaissance, military space operations, and other advanced capabilities.

The Pentagon also has pushed back against Chinese military efforts to take control of the South China Sea by building islands and placing missiles on them.

Pentagon officials disclosed to the Washington Free Beacon in June that China has stepped up military deployments in the disputed waterway.

"These deployments involve the delivery of military jamming equipment as well as advanced anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems to the outposts," a senior official said.

The new missiles include YJ-12B anti-ship cruise missiles that give the Chinese military the ability to hit ships up to 340 miles away. That range threatens U.S. warships that are increasingly conducting freedom of navigation through the waters.

The Naval War College symposium is closed to the public in line with earlier Chinese military visits that have included demands from China not to disclose the visits publicly.

China's military in recent years has insisted that its visiting officer visits be kept secret to avoid prompting demonstrations or other protests from human rights activists and others who oppose China's repressive political system.

The Pentagon's latest annual report on the Chinese military said the exchange program with China is part of U.S. strategy to have a "constructive, results-oriented relationship" with China.

"The military-to-military relationship seeks to encourage China to act in a manner consistent with international law and norms," the report said.

Years of military exchanges and high-level visits, however, appear to have produced few results.

China continued building up military forces in the South China Sea and continues to conduct aggressive military activities in response to U.S warship visits there.

The Chinese also have increased pressure on Taiwan, flying bombers around the island, and have shown no signs of letting up in military coercion of Japan in a dispute over the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

China's Defense Minister Wei Fenghe is also expected to visit the United States before the end of the year.

Last year, Vice Adm. Yuan Yubai, commander of the PLA's Southern Theater Command, which is in charge of the forces in the South China Sea, visited the United States during an unpublicized visit in September.

In November, PLA Lt. Gen. Ma Yiming, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department, also made an unpublicized U.S. visit.

The Pentagon China report said the PLA is expanding its use of visits and exchanges.

"Expanded PLA travel abroad enables PLA officers to observe and study foreign military command structures, unit formations, and operational training."

Critics of the military exchange program have said the visits are part of a strategy by China to continue talking while Beijing takes no action to correct its troubling behavior.

Chinese territorial claims are unchanged and the military is continuing to build up its forces with advanced weaponry in anticipation of a future conflict with the United States.

China also is using its economic and military power to influence the international environment to accepting its form of socialist dictatorship.

Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief, said welcoming Shen after disinviting the PLA from RIMPAC, sends a contradictory message to the Chinese.

After signaling Beijing and the rest of the Asian region about U.S. concerns over military expansion, that message was weakened by inviting the Chinese admiral. "If there is not a more confusing strategic messaging problem, then I haven't seen it," Fanell said.

"All the effort that went into reversing a 40 year trend of ‘engagement at all costs' mentality is now being swept under the rug in order for the U.S. Navy leadership to continue the failed policies of appeasement and accommodation that have resulted in the PRC building and establishing military installations in the South China Sea that clearly have up-ended the status quo of peace and stability in these waters," he said.

Allowing the high-level engagement and the attendance at the Navy conference "runs counter to everything this present administration has said and done with respect to the PRC's illegal maritime sovereignty campaign," Fanell said.

"The say-do mismatch is apparent to the world and one hopes the senior leaders of the national security team within this administration will provide more precise guidance to our service chiefs on how they should deal with their counterparts," he added.

Bill Gertz   Email Bill | Full Bio | RSS
Bill Gertz is senior editor of the Washington Free Beacon. Prior to joining the Beacon he was a national security reporter, editor, and columnist for 27 years at the Washington Times. Bill is the author of seven books, four of which were national bestsellers. His most recent book was iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age, a look at information warfare in its many forms and the enemies that are waging it. Bill has an international reputation. Vyachaslav Trubnikov, head of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, once called him a “tool of the CIA” after he wrote an article exposing Russian intelligence operations in the Balkans. A senior CIA official once threatened to have a cruise missile fired at his desk after he wrote a column critical of the CIA’s analysis of China. And China’s communist government has criticized him for news reports exposing China’s weapons and missile sales to rogue states. The state-run Xinhua news agency in 2006 identified Bill as the No. 1 “anti-China expert” in the world. Bill insists he is very much pro-China—pro-Chinese people and opposed to the communist system. Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld once told him: “You are drilling holes in the Pentagon and sucking out information.” His Twitter handle is @BillGertz.

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