The Navy's top officer strongly advocated robust "engagement" with China to reduce the growing tensions generated by Beijing's aggressive behavior in the South China Sea, while minimizing the effectiveness of the Asian giant's highly touted anti-access, area-denial defense capabilities against U.S. naval forces.
During a Sept. 12 appearance at the Center for a New American Security n Washington, D.C., the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson also favorably compared the conduct of People's Liberation Army - Navy ships during at-sea encounters to the threatening actions by fast-attack craft operated by Iran's militant Revolutionary Guard in the congested Persian Gulf. And he said US commanders have the freedom to respond to those acts.
A helicopter attached to Chinese Navy ship multirole frigate Hengshui (572) participates in a maritime interdiction event with the Chinese Navy guided-missile destroyer Xi'an (153) during Rim of the Pacific. (Chinese navy photo by Sun Hongjie)
In a classic understatement, Richardson described U.S. relations with China as "complicated," and said "we have to structure our relations with our counterparts, the Peoples Liberation Army - Navy along those lines. First and foremost, we've got to continue to engage. I'm an advocate for engagement, thoughtful engagement."
Noting that "there are areas where we have common interests," he suggested aligning US efforts to support those common interests.
He suggested that one of those "common interest" was freedom of navigation that would allow all nations to use the maritime domain for commercial reasons, despite the fact that China's aggressive claims to virtually all of the South China Sea and parts of the East China Sea far from its territorial limits would deny others access to those vital waterways.
Richardson acknowledged that during his recent visit with the head of the Chinese navy, he was "very honest and very frank in terms of those things that would be helpful in moving the relationship forward in mutually beneficial ways and those behaviors that would be completely not helpful in terms of moving that relationship down the road." That was an effort, he said, toward "minimizing the uncertainty, the miscalculations, by asserting in advance these things that would be very good, those that would be troublesome."
But the Navy chief insisted that any regional arrangement for security in the Asia-Pacific region had to include China.
Asked about the A2AD capabilities China is developing to keep U.S. forces out of its claim zone of control, Richardson said that was "sort of an aspiration rather than any kind of strategy."
While acknowledging the technological advances that allow detection and precision targeting at greater distances, "there is a whole sequence of events that have to happen in perfect symphony to execute that mission. There are many ways to deconstruct that chain of events," he said.
In response to a question about what authority US commanders had to respond to the rash of threatening actions by the Iranian small craft, Richardson said, "there's really nothing that limits the way they can respond."
He noted that in those "super dynamic situations," the commanders must make decisions "in very short periods of time. We try to make sure our commanders have the situational awareness and the capabilities and the rules of engagement that they remain in command of the situation."
He called that a "a great demonstration of something I advocate for, the need to continue to develop a sort of decentralized approach toward operations. These sort of things happen on a time scale that really doesn't allow commanders to sort of phone home for permission and then respond."
"They have to know what their commanders expect, have to be given the freedom to act, to take advantage of opportunities, but also so they can respond to these very quick acting opportunities."
"Is our Navy prepared to respond? The answer is yes in every respect," he said.
Richardson said the actions by the Iranian Guard vessels were unlike the meetings with Chinese warships, which under an agreement on encounters at sea, "the vast majority of encounters with the Chinese have been peaceful."
And, he added, it would be useful to have a similar agreement with Russia to prevent the recent close encounters with Russian ships and aircraft in the Black Sea.