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Chiangmai, Thailand Sep 8-12.

(05/08/2006) Prestowitz in the Associated Press

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.

On Pacific patrol: As U.S. warships ply the waters, China rises on the horizon

By ERIC TALMADGE

Associated Press Writer

ABOARD THE USS GARY - It has been a rough few days. Steaming up the eastern coast of Japan, Cmdr. Joseph Deleon's guided missile frigate has been tossed around on heavy seas and the younger sailors, back from five months ashore, are feeling seasick. Grounded by high winds, the helicopter pilots are watching movies in the ward room.

The primary mission is hunting submarines. But the Gary, like the U.S. Seventh Fleet to which it belongs, is also a showcase of American power in a region fraught with crises - North Korea, Taiwan, terrorism and piracy.

It is also a region whose security profile is being changed by the rise of China and a major realignment of U.S. forces, and by the prospect of Japan breaking out of its 60-year pacifist mind-set and playing a greater defense role.

The fleet's 40-50 ships, 120 aircraft and roughly 20,000 sailors and Marines have an area of operations that spans the Pacific and Indian oceans, 135 million square kilometers (52 million square miles) from the international dateline to the east coast of Africa. It's a region that accounts for more than US$220 billion (euro174 billion) in trade with the United States, 98 percent of which moves by sea.

The consequences of a war in these waters are obvious - global economic meltdown.

With major outposts in Japan, South Korea, Guam and the Diego Garcias in the Indian Ocean, the fleet has a reach and deterrent force that other nations can only envy.

As the Gary makes its way through the Tsugaru Straits between Japan's main island and Hokkaido on its way to exercises with the South Koreans, the flagship of the fleet, the USS Blue Ridge, is 4,830 kilometers (3,000 miles) away making port calls in Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. The centerpiece of it all, the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier, is at the fleet's home port in Yokosuka, just south of Tokyo, undergoing repairs.

But in the Pacific, calm waters can turn rough very fast.

Just a few days' journey away from the Gary is North Korea, openly hostile, claiming nuclear might and technically still at war with South Korea. Then there's Taiwan, a U.S. ally which China claims as a renegade province, to be recovered by force if necessary.

To the south, the Malacca Straits, one of the world's most important trade routes, are infested with pirates. Terrorism is rife throughout much of southeast Asia; territorial disputes begin up around the Siberian coast and work their way down to well below the equator.

Taking a short break in his quarters just below the bridge on the Gary, Deleon refuses to single out any specific hotspot as a primary concern.

"We have countries that we are monitoring, that we are aware of," he said. The rest, he suggests, is classified.

Some facts speak for themselves, however. With the decline of the once mighty Soviet navy, most of the subs the fleet is tracking are now Chinese.

With its physical size, 1.3 billion people and swelling economy, China casts a lengthening shadow as it establishes itself yet again as a power to be reckoned with.

But where is it going?

Some experts believe that while the Soviet Union was primarily a military rival and Japan an economic one, China could emerge as the first country with the potential to challenge the United States on both fronts.

Its economic growth, fanned by robust exports and investment, is expected to be 8.9 percent in 2006. China is now the world's second largest consumer and third-largest importer of oil. And this year, its foreign currency reserves reached US$853.7 billion (euro675.2 billion), topping Japan's to become the world's largest.

Clyde Prestowitz, a former U.S. trade negotiator, notes that China and India have a combined 230 million people considered "highly skilled" - not far off the entire population of the United States.

"It's true these are poor countries on average, but these are big populations," he said during a recent visit to Tokyo. "We've been talking about globalization for a long time, except half of the population has been out. Now they're in."

Much of Asia already depends on the Chinese economy to fire growth, and China is widely credited by economists with pulling the region out of the financial crisis of the 1990s.

So, according to Prestowitz, the rise of China isn't what the developed countries should fear.

"What we should fear is its failure," he said.

But as China's economy has grown, so has its military.

In March last year, Beijing announced it was increasing its defense budget 12.5 percent, to about US$29.9 billion (euro23.7 billion), twice as much as in 2000.

That figure is generally considered an underestimate. It excludes key areas, such as foreign weapons procurement and support for its nuclear stockpile. The actual budget could be two to three times higher.

"China will not threaten anyone," its latest national defense policy statement said. "China needs a peaceful international environment to develop itself... China will never pursue expansion and hegemony."

The Pentagon sees it differently.

"China does not now face a direct threat from another nation," it said in a report last July. "Yet, it continues to invest heavily in its military, particularly in programs designed to improve power projection... In the future, China's leaders may be tempted to resort to force or coercion more quickly to press diplomatic advantage, advance security interests or resolve disputes."

Taiwan remains the key concern.

Beijing has acquired Russian Sukhoi fighters to control the Taiwan Strait and has deployed 650-730 mobile short-range ballistic missiles on its side of the coastline. Last summer, China conducted a large-scale joint exercise with Russia that focused on a sea blockade and landing operations that were widely regarded as a test-run for military action against the island.

The National People's Congress increased pressure on Taipei in March last year by passing the anti-secessionist law, which states Beijing will allow "no interference by outside forces" and shall never let Taiwan secede "under any name or by any means."

China's military growth suggests it is looking beyond Taiwan, however.

Last June, China test-fired a Ju Lang 2 submarine-launched ballistic missile. An improved version of the Dong Feng 31, China's ICBM, the Ju Lang 2 has an estimated range of about 8,000 kilometers (4,800 miles), putting the continental U.S. within striking distance.

China has no aircraft carriers, but submarines are seen as a good indicator of Beijing's desire to project force beyond its shores. Western military analysts believe the Chinese are significantly improving their submarine fleet through domestic production and procurement from Russia.

In a report to Congress in March, Adm. William Fallon, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said the Navy has renewed its focus on anti-submarine warfare "in view of the proliferation and increased capability of submarines in Asia and the Pacific."

"While nowhere near U.S. capabilities, the PLA is enhancing a diverse and robust array of military hardware," he said, adding that the United States is strongly encouraging Chinese military leaders to "substantively engage us in a more transparent manner."

The Pentagon is putting a larger proportion of its submarine fleet in the Pacific, adding another aircraft carrier battle group and bolstering and reshaping its forces on the tiny island of Guam, a U.S. territory about halfway between Hawaii and Tokyo.

It is also carrying out a sweeping realignment of its troops in Japan. Tokyo and Washington have agreed to improve information-sharing, cooperate on ballistic missile defense and bolster joint contingency planning. The Army, meanwhile, may move the headquarters of I Corps, which focuses on potential conflicts in the Pacific, from Fort Lewis, Wash., to Japan.

Japan, which sits like a fence off the shores of China, has been conditioned since Hiroshima to stay out of conflicts, and pacifism is written into its constitution. But its leadership is becoming increasingly aggressive about putting its military to use.

Japan already ranks fourth or fifth in military spending behind the United States, Russia, China and possibly Britain. Its air force and navy are among the most powerful in Asia. It has ground troops in Iraq on a non-combat mission and its vessels help refuel coalition warships in the Indian Ocean.

It is alarmed by the perceived threat posed by China and by neighboring North Korea, which shot a ballistic missile over Japan's main island in 1998. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi supports revising the constitution to "normalize" Japan's Self-Defense Forces - meaning give it the status and powers of any other army - and has initiated a program that put Japan's first spy satellites in orbit two years ago.

"In a highly globalized world, an SDF specializing only in the defense of the homeland can hardly defend Japan's overall security," the National Institute for Defense Studies, the research and policy arm of Japan's Defense Agency, said its 2006 strategic review. "The SDF must expand and deepen international cooperation and deal with regional and global security problems."

After several months of repairs, Kitty Hawk commander Capt. Ed McNamee is eager to take the aircraft carrier back out to sea.

Forty-five years in service, it's the oldest active-duty warship in the Navy, and is to be replaced by the nuclear-powered USS George Washington in 2008.

"The Navy is committed to keeping it in combat shape until it is time to go home," McNamee said. "But it takes a little more every year to keep her going."

Nevertheless, when McNamee leaves port he commands a powerful weapon - a crew of roughly 5,000, with 75-plus aircraft, including everything from F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters to torpedo-bearing Seahawk helicopters. As an example of how versatile his ship is, he said that in 2001, helicopters launched off Kitty Hawk flew Marine special operations units to landlocked Afghanistan.

"We are a very potent force," he said.

And, by design, a very visible one.

For about six months of the year, the Kitty Hawk is at sea in the Pacific. Much of that time it is participating in exercises with regional allies.

"The nations of Asia make up 50 percent of the world's population, 80 percent of which lives within 800 kilometers (500 miles) of the coast. It is a maritime region," McNamee said.

McNamee stressed that U.S. Navy ships played a significant role in assisting victims of the tsunami that deluged south Asia in 2004, and said that role will likely expand in future.

He is also keenly aware that his ship - an aircraft carrier ready to "reach out" and touch countries virtually anywhere - is a symbol of exactly what China does not yet have.

Asked if he considers China a threat, he turns diplomatic, recalling the days, even as the Cold War was being waged, when Soviet naval officers would come aboard U.S. ships to visit.

"I look forward to the same kind of opportunity with the Chinese," he said.

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