• Reuters, Bloomberg


China is mounting a serious effort to challenge U.S. military superiority in air and space, forcing the Pentagon to seek new technologies and systems to stay ahead of its rapidly developing rival, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work said Monday.

The Pentagon’s chief operating officer, speaking to a group of military and civilian aerospace experts, said China was “quickly closing the technological gaps,” developing radar-evading aircraft, advanced reconnaissance planes, sophisticated missiles and top-notch electronic warfare equipment.

While hoping for a constructive relationship with China, the Pentagon “cannot overlook the competitive aspects of our relationship, especially in the realm of military capabilities, an area in which China continues to improve at a very impressive rate,” he said.

China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency late Monday cited Xu Qiliang, a vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission, as saying China must innovate even more.

“Our military’s equipment construction is shifting from catch-up research to independent innovations,” Xu said.

Work made his remarks to the inaugural conference of the China Aerospace Studies Initiative, a partnership of the U.S. Air Force and the RAND Corp. think tank. The initiative aims to boost U.S. research on China’s aerospace ambitions.

The conference came as hundreds of Chinese officials were in Washington for the three-day U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, wide-ranging talks that look at areas of mutual cooperation and address points of friction.

Asked about the timing of the military conference, Work said U.S. and Chinese leaders both see the bilateral relationship as one in which there are “measures of cooperation and measures of competition.”

“We’re hoping over time that the cooperative aspects outweigh competitive aspects,” Work added. “As the Department of Defense, we’re the hedge force. . . . We say, ‘Look, here are capabilities that we see that the Chinese are developing and it’s important for us to be able to counter those.”

Work, citing a Harvard study on rising powers confronting established powers, told the conference that interactions between the two often result in war. As a result, the Defense Department must “hedge against this international competition turning more heated.”

The United States has generally felt the best hedge is a strong nuclear and conventional deterrence capable of overmatching any rival, he added.

Work said the United States has relied on technological superiority for the past 25 years, but now “the margin of technological superiority upon which we have become so accustomed . . . is steadily eroding.”

To adjust, he said, the Pentagon is working to develop new technologies to maintain its edge and lower the cost of responding to attacks. Directed energy weapons, for example, might be able to shoot down missiles that cost a hundred times the price of a jolt of energy.

Elsewhere, the captain of a U.S. coastal combat ship that has patrolled the disputed South China Sea and met a Chinese ship last month said that Washington expects more encounters at sea with Chinese navy vessels.

The countries have agreed codes to help understand each other and talk via radio, said Cmdr. Rich Jarrett, commanding officer of the USS Fort Worth. The language used is very similar to that used 20 years ago with the Soviet Union, the U.S.’ former Cold War foe, he said.

The Fort Worth deployed the codes when it unexpectedly met a Chinese vessel near the disputed Spratly islands during a May patrol of the South China Sea. It was the first time a U.S. littoral combat ship operated in waters around the islands, which are claimed by countries including China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

“I expect that we may have a similar encounter because we’re operating in this part of the world,” Jarrett said in an interview Monday on the ship moored on the Philippines’ Palawan island. “But quite honestly I’m not sure that I’m going to do anything particularly different than what I’ve done in previous deployments.”

Adm. Michelle Howard, the vice chief of naval operations, declined last month to say whether the Fort Worth sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Spratlys during its patrol, or give further details of the encounter. Stars and Stripes reported the ship was followed closely by a Chinese frigate.

The Fort Worth is taking part in a military exercise with the Philippines off the east coast of Palawan this week, near the South China Sea. The ship, which can operate in shallow waters near the coast, is in the midst of a 16-month deployment to the Asia-Pacific region.

Tensions in the South China Sea have risen with China warning planes and ships away from reefs where it is reclaiming land. A U.S. surveillance plane was repeatedly told by radio to divert from its path near the reefs last month.

Protecting freedom of navigation in the disputed waters resonates in the region because the South China Sea hosts more than $5 trillion of shipping each year and is home to about a 10th of the world’s annual fishing catch.

“There is a language barrier between China and the United States,” Jarrett said. “Having a common language that we can speak is helpful,” he said, adding “it does help avoid any kind of miscalculation.”

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