WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States aims to expand its involvement in East Asia amid concerns that China may use its growing military clout to coerce its neighbors or move against Taiwan, officials told Congress on Wednesday.
The renewed concerns voiced by Obama administration and U.S. military officials included cyber-attacks originating in China and came as Google threatens to quite China over censorship and hacking, heightening Sino-U.S. frictions.
“We will remain engaged and active throughout the region, supporting our allies and expanding our leadership in this vitally part of the world,” said David Shear, a deputy assistant secretary of state, in testimony before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
President Barack Obama’s administration, which has sought to partner with China in tackling global issues, has also angered Beijing by clearing arms sales to Taiwan and by slapping tariffs on Chinese tires and steel products.
China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and has vowed to bring it under its rule, by force if necessary.
The Pentagon’s top civilian official for the region said the United States saw risks that China might “one day calculate it has reached the tipping point in the Taiwan Strait and issue an ultimatum.”
There are “risks that China may use its military to exercise coercion against its neighbors; and risks that misunderstanding or miscommunication between the United States and China could lead to confrontation, crisis, or conflict,” said Wallace Gregson, an assistant secretary of defense.
Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, said China’s new military capabilities “appear designed to challenge U.S. freedom of action in the region.”
They also could be used to “enforce China’s influence over its neighbors — including our regional allies and partners,” Willard said in written testimony.
Google, the world’s top search engine, said it will not abide by censorship and may shut its Chinese-language google.cn website because of attacks from China on human rights activists using its Gmail service and on dozens of companies,
“U.S. military and government networks and computer systems continue to be the target of intrusions that appear to have originated from within” China, Willard said without referring to Google.
He warned that while most of the cyber-attacks focus on prying out data, “the skills being demonstrated would also apply to wartime computer network attacks.”
Efforts to bolster U.S.-Chinese military dialogue have so far failed to create sufficient transparency in Chinese military activities, the officials said.
One example was a missile defense test this week by China, which held an exercise aimed at destroying missiles in mid-air. China did not give any advanced notice to the United States, they said.
“I’m not aware that we received any notification until after the test,” Gregson said, adding that the United States by contrast would typically publish public warnings of missile defense tests, available to mariners, pilots and others.
Willard said China was seeking to deploy its first aircraft carrier, an important way to project power far beyond its shores. China purchased an unfinished former Soviet Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier in 1998 and began renovations in 2002.
“I expect this carrier to become operational around 2012,” Willard said.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell; editing by Mohammad Zargham