The top U.S. military officer says China is taking a "much more aggressive approach" in its policy toward international waters near its coastline, raising his level of concern about China's intentions as it continues to build its armed services and to refuse to engage in dialogue with the U.S. military.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen has said he has gone from being "curious" to being "concerned" about China's military buildup and its intentions, and on Friday during a trip to New Delhi, he explained part of the reason for that.
"They seem to be taking a much more aggressive approach with respect to the "near sea" area. Recent public statements about the United States Navy not operating in the Yellow Sea, which is an international body of water, that's just not something that we're going to adhere to," Admiral Mullen said. I mean, we're going to continue to operate in international waters, as we have historically."
He was referring to Chinese objections to the plan for U.S.-South Korean naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, between China and the Korean Peninsula, and to incidents in which Chinese patrol craft have harassed U.S. Navy ships.
China believes it has the right to control access to its 300-kilometer-wide exclusive economic zone. The United States considers anything beyond about 20 kilometers to be international waters.
The admiral said China is also being "more assertive" about territory it claims. That would include island chains in the South China Sea. In addition, China imposed a freeze on relations with the U.S. military following the latest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, which it would like to reclaim after more than 60 years of separate government supported by the United States.
"We have virtually no relationship between the Chinese military and the United States military." said Mullen. "And I think having that kind of relationship and dialogue - what we can agree on, what we can disagree on, but at least learning more about each other - is absolutely critical."
Admiral Mullen says the freeze contributes to what he called the "opaqueness" of China's military development and intentions, which he said makes him worry. The admiral, who was previously head of the U.S. Navy, said as China's naval capabilities increase, all countries will have to adjust their global military posture.
"That's going to require us to adjust as well. But I don't see that in terms of changing with respect to where we'll operate or the areas that we think will continue to be important, and certainly the Pacific and the Indian Ocean are two of those,"
China has been investing heavily in its military, particularly modern naval and air capabilities, with double digit growth in defense spending for more than a decade. According to official statements, it aims to become the predominant power in the western Pacific, a position the United States now holds and intends to maintain.
Admiral Mullen said the threats in today's world and the importance of maintaining open sea lanes for defense and trade require many nations to help keep the peace, an apparent offer to work with China on such issues. But that will have to wait until China is willing to resume military talks with the United States, a prospect that seems to have been delayed by the dispute over the Yellow Sea exercises.
The exercises were planned in response to the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship in the Yellow Sea in March, which killed 46 sailors. An international investigation concluded that a North Korean torpedo sank the ship. China is North Korea's chief international supporter.