McCain to Pentagon: Don’t let your aircraft carriers visit China

By Craig Whitlock

As the Pentagon considers whether to allow a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier to make a historic port visit to China, the idea is drawing flak from Capitol Hill.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, urged the Defense Department to scuttle the proposal in a letter dated Monday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work. Calling the Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers “one of the most sophisticated and lethal military tools in world history,” McCain said it would be a political and symbolic mistake for the Navy to accept a Chinese invitation for one of its massive flattop vessels to swing by for a visit.

“Sending such a platform to China would be seen as an international display of respect to China and it’s Navy, despite Beijing’s recent record of aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas,” McCain wrote. “I believe it would also send the wrong signal to allies and partners throughout the region, including Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam, who are looking to the United States for leadership in the face of China’s continued use of coercion to pursue its territorial claims.”

On Friday, Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said defense officials have decided to shelve the idea of a carrier visit to China, at least for now. “We have no plans for a carrier visit to mainland China this year,” he said.

The announcement came a day after U.S. and Chinese military officials met at the Pentagon to discuss various forms of military exchanges for the remainder of the year.

The Pentagon has been seeking closer military ties with China – such as more frequent military exchanges, multilateral exercises and visits by senior leaders – even as both countries have sought to project more force in Asia. Relations have gradually improved since January 2010, when Beijing suspended military visits and exchanges with Washington to protest U.S. arm sales to Taiwan. But turbulent moments have arisen, such as an increasing number of dangerous midair encounters between U.S. and Chinese aircraft. As a result, some lawmakers have questioned whether the Pentagon is too eager to become friendly with the People’s Liberation Army.

In December, Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), sent a letter to Hagelexpressing “a growing concern with the overall trajectory of the military-to-military relationship” with China. He questioned whether the efforts to cultivate ties with the PLA had paid off, and requested that Hagel conduct a formal review of the Pentagon’s policy.

China’s Navy chief, Adm. Wu Shengli, suggested in July to his American counterpart, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the U.S. chief of naval operations, that he would consider sending a U.S. carrier on a port visit. The idea has been batted around since then in the halls of the Pentagon, but officials said no decision had been made.

Part of the reason that China has been interested in arranging a visit is because the PLA-Navy has been trying to develop its own fleet of carriers. Its first carrier, the Liaoning, completed its first sea trials last year; Hagel toured the ship in April during an official visit to the port of Qingdao.

More recently, word has leaked out that China is building a second carrier, though the PLA has been mum about the subject. The U.S. Navy has 11 carriers – nine more than any other country in the world.

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