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Chinese submarine tails US aircraft carrier near Japan

A Chinese submarine Photo: Reuters 

An American aircraft carrier was closely tracked by a Chinese submarine off the coast of Japan last month, a US defense official said, in the latest example of the test of wills between the two countries in the waters of the Pacific.

A submerged Chinese Kilo-class fast-attack submarine shadowed the USS Ronald Reagan for at least half a day on October 24, the official said.

The incident occurred as the Reagan sailed from its home port to the Sea of Japan around the southern end of Japan.

He did not say how close the two vessels came to each other, but he noted, "It was more than a brief encounter."

There was no indication of threatening behavior, and no communications exchanged between the two craft, he said, but American anti-submarine aircraft monitored the Chinese vessel.

Chinese officials have not yet commented on the matter.

The US defense official played down the threatening nature of the incident, saying that any time the US conducts joint exercises with Japan, the Chinese sometimes "come out and take a look at what's going on."

The Reagan, a 1,000-foot nuclear-powered carrier that can carry 90 warplanes and a crew of 5,000, is a symbol of US power projection capabilities. China's military has been attempting to drive the US military out of Asia as part of efforts to assume the sole leadership role in the region.

The encounter, first reported by the Washington Free Beacon, comes at a time of naval tensions between the two countries, most recently over China's territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Just days after the submarine incident, the US sent the USS Lassen to pass within less than 12 miles of one of China's artificial islands as a challenge to Beijing's claims that the new islands are Chinese territory.

The Lassen's passage in the South China Sea on October 26 was fiercely denounced by the Chinese government. Chinese spokesmen, both military and civilian, said that the passage was a violation of Beijing's territorial sovereignty, a claim rejected by the United States, which said the ship was sailing in international waters.

China's ambassador to the United States said that the transit was "a very serious provocation, politically and militarily."

Disclosure of the Chinese submarine encounter also comes as Adm. Harry Harris is visiting China for the first time as the commander of US forces in the Pacific.

Harris has been a forceful advocate within the military for challenging China's claims to vast areas of the South China Sea. He told a Senate hearing in September that "the South China Sea is no more China's than the Gulf of Mexico is Mexico's."

On Monday, Harris traveled to Beijing for a three-day visit and talks with Chinese military leaders. "Sustained military-to-military dialogue between the US and China is designed to maximize cooperation on areas of mutual interest while candidly addressing and managing disagreements," the Pacific Command statement said.

Retired Navy Capt. Jim Fanell, a former Pacific Fleet intelligence chief who is an expert in Chinese submarine forces, said that Beijing's submarines are the vanguard of the PLA Navy's expansive operations into the island chain near its coast and into distant seas.

"Whether it is sending nuclear submarines to the Gulf of Aden or having SSBNs [missile submarines] conducting patrols of long duration as far as the middle Pacific, the US Navy has been keenly aware of PLA Navy submarine operations, especially since the October 26, 2006 Song [submarine]/[aircraft carrier] Kitty Hawk incident."

But there is also a potential benefit when competing navies have close encounters.

"The truth is, we track them tracking us, and we learn about their capabilities," said Robert Daly, who directs the Kissinger Institute on China at the Woodrow Wilson Center.

"Chinese submarines are growing in number, but they're still relatively noisy," he pointed out. "They're at least a generation behind us. And when they track us, we find out what they are capable of."

Chinese state-run media and military commentators have denounced the deployment of the Reagan, which replaced the carrier group led by the USS George Washington.

"The United States intends to strengthen its military superiority in order to frighten the neighboring countries of the disputed region, such as China, North Korea and Russia," retired Chinese Rear Adm. Yin Zhuo told state television in September.

In May, a US surveillance plane swooped over Chinese islands, triggering warnings from the Chinese navy to back off.

Meanwhile, Chinese navy ships passed through American waters off Alaska, coming closer than 12 miles, in September, in what officials described as a first for China.

"I actually think it's the beginning of a tense period," said the Wilson Center's Robert Daly. "This is going to be a long process in which there is a mutual testing of limits and sending of signals."

Analysts say that in recent years China has been increasing its spending on naval forces, while at the same time the US has outlined plans for a rebalancing of forces toward the Pacific.

"The US still remains the military leader in the Pacific," said Mira Rapp-Hooper with the Center for a New American Security. "But every year for the last 20 years, China has increased its defense budget by double digits, and it is now a serious regional and global player when it comes to its military capabilities."

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