Naval school's prominence puts it at the forefront of confronting China's growing naval threat.

The specter of a war with China over Taiwan was one of several global security issues that drew U.S. submarine officers from around the world to a top-secret meeting at the Naval Postgraduate School this month.

The fact that more than two dozen Navy leaders met under the highest security in Monterey puts the Navy school on the front line of a developing Cold War-type scenario in the Pacific. In recent months, military exercises there have been marked by tense diplomacy and saber-rattling between the U.S. and China.

Under security conditions that one Pentagon insider described as "impenetrable," Chief of Naval Operations Mike Mullen was quietly whisked in and out of town Sept. 28 and Sept. 29 to address the admirals on undisclosed military and security topics, said Mullen's spokesman, Cmdr. John Kirby. He said Mullen, the Navy's top officer, was invited by the admirals. During his quick trip to the Peninsula, Mullen visited Fleet Numerical Laboratories.

Kirby said he could not comment on whether Mullen discussed China and the Pacific with the submarine commanders, but he said Mullen talked about the future direction of the Navy and "the crucial role of the submarine forces." In 2006, the Navy plans to rapidly develop its anti-submarine warfare technology, according to a report released Friday by Mullen.

Other participants at the meeting, including an Asian security expert contracted by the Pentagon, discussed China's strategies.

Those responsible for all U.S. submarine operations across the globe were there, including Vice Adm. Chuck Munns, commander of the Navy's submarine forces and the Atlantic fleet, and Rear Adm. Jeff Cassias, commander of submarine forces in the Pacific.

Center for sub strategy

The location of such a high-level meeting is not surprising. Monterey is in many ways ground zero for submarine intelligence and strategy, in part because Naval Postgraduate School dean Rear Adm. Patrick Dunne comes from the submarine side of the Navy. Among other projects, Naval Postgraduate School researchers have built and tested unmanned submarines in Monterey Bay. Fleet Numerical has strong ties to the fleets, supplying weather and ocean tools for submarines and anti-submarine warfare.

The Navy's submarine fleets are often referred to as "the silent service" because much of their activity is covert and involves espionage.

The meeting in Monterey was similarly under wraps, with no official information available until the officers left the area. Described by Munns' office as a submarine flag officers' training symposium, it was organized by Munns and hosted by Dunne, and was one of a number of high-level submarine conferences held in different locations over the years.

The gathering came just weeks after the Navy's Pacific Fleet commander vowed to keep a close watch on the first joint war exercises between China and Russia, held in late August.

The joint exercises, called Peace Mission 2005, were conducted across the Yellow Sea from the Korean peninsula and involved nearly 10,000 troops on land, sea and air. As part of the weeklong drills, two submarines tested anti-ship missiles, according to foreign press reports.

Battling U.S. presence

Though the drills were officially billed as anti-terrorism exercises, Chinese and Russian reporters concluded that their real purpose was to stand up to U.S. dominance in the region and to show that China has the military capacity to invade Taiwan.

"It's a not-so-subtle signal that there is an alliance," said Christopher Twomey, a Naval Postgraduate School researcher who spoke on Chinese foreign policy at the meeting. "You don't do amphibious land exercises to stop terrorism. It was clearly a signal that China is capable of landing in Taiwan." According to the Senate Armed Services Committee, China will acquire 11 new subs this year and is engaged in a military buildup that has been described as "breakneck," although its military budget is estimated by the Pentagon to be between $60 billion and $90 billion, compared to $455 billion in the United States.

The Pentagon, however, is taking the news of the buildup seriously.

"Since no nation threatens China," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this summer, "one must wonder: Why this growing investment?"

But China does think it's threatened.

Earlier this year, China and Russia, angered by U.S. unilateralism and what they consider to be meddling near their borders, recently issued a joint proclamation of unity.

As all sides hustle to stay on top of a delicate balance of power in the region, the United States is trying to reassert its former dominance in the Pacific and has stepped up its air power and submarine forces in the region.

Sending more subs

The Navy is moving more subs to its Pacific fleet, and for the past four years has been enlarging a submarine base in Guam in an expansion dubbed "the Guam Experiment." The submarine USS Houston was ordered to Guam in December, and the Navy plans to send another sub soon.

Mullen recently promised to double U.S. submarine manufacturing quotas to two subs a year. He made the announcement while visiting the Groton, Conn., sub-building base, which was spared from closure at the last minute by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

All this comes as military and diplomatic experts see Taiwan as a potential battleground for the U.S. and China. The Pentagon issued a report this summer noting that China still has more than 500 missiles pointed at Taiwan.

If a conflict over Taiwan were to break out in the Pacific, it would likely fall to the Navy's submarine commanders to do something about it.

"These are the guys that will be at the front lines if anything happens," said Twomey, a civilian professor and researcher at the Naval Postgraduate School's department of national security affairs.

Twomey analyzes U.S.-China relations for the Pentagon's Defense Threat Reduction Agency, charged with safeguarding U.S. interests from weapons of mass destruction, and has been involved in diplomatic efforts to calm tensions in the Pacific.

U.S.-China meeting

In early August, days before the Navy held its own weeklong, 10,000-troop war exercise in the Pacific, Twomey took part in a U.S.-China diplomatic dialogue sponsored by the Defense Department and the Naval Postgraduate School.

The idea was for each side to understand the other's perception of the military threats they face. Such "unofficial" and frank dialogues, Twomey said, "were very useful in the Cold War. The hope is that we will get attention in the Pentagon."

The dialogues included Chinese military leaders, a representative from the Navy's Pacific Command, and diplomatic and military scholars.

The U.S. and China "are at a critical juncture," Twomey and two NPS colleagues wrote in a report on the meeting. Taiwan may be the only potential source of military conflict between the two countries.

"Chinese willingness to use violent means to prevent permanent military separation of Taiwan was emphatically repeated," the report said.

In response to this perceived threat, the Bush administration has been trying since 2001 to get Taiwan to buy billions of dollars worth of U.S. submarines and submarine-hunting aircraft to defend itself from a possible mainland invasion. If the sale goes through, it could provoke China into demonstrating the force of its own sub fleets. The $10 billion sale has so far been blocked by Taiwan's opposition parties.

China has told the U.S. it does not want to see any military cooperation between the U.S. and Taiwan, reminding the White House that it has agreed to respect the "one nation" status of the island and China.

Taiwan apart

In recent months, the island's dominant political parties seem content with the status quo - not trying to reintegrate with the mainland, but not wanting complete independence either.

"The opposition parties are not interested in unification. They want to keep it as it is," said J.D. Yuen, who teaches Chinese foreign policy and East Asian security at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

The diplomatic balance of power is so delicate right now, he said, that China would likely hesitate to attack Taiwan.

"But if Taiwan is going to publicly declare independence, China would feel it has to attack," he said.

Some say that balancing weaponry doesn't have to mean war.

Yuen said the Russia-China alliance is "more rhetorical" than real. "Certainly they would like to keep their influence and minimize U.S. influence," he said, but the approach of both sides has been a combination of "engagement plus hedging."

Rumsfeld weighs in

Recently, while the nation's headlines have been occupied with hurricanes and Iraq, the Cold War-style standoff with China has been building.

In late August, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who has done little to downplay his views of China as a threat, refueled China's fires when he referred to Taiwan as a "sovereign nation," a statement the State Department soon disavowed.

Simulated electronic war games planned for the U.S. and Taiwan were quietly canceled this week, and when pressed, the Navy said that the newly appointed head of the Pacific Command needed more time to get oriented to his job. A spokesman for China's foreign ministry, however, said Monday his office specifically pressed the U.S. "not to have any military exchanges and links with Taiwan."

Last week, over China's objections, Taiwan's fiery former president Lee Teng-hui was in Los Angeles visiting "old friends" and drumming up support for the independence movement. The last time Lee came to the U.S., in 1995, China was angry enough to launch missiles into the Taiwan Strait.

Rumsfeld scheduled a trip to China this week, his first since taking office in 2001. China's foreign ministry said Rumsfeld will arrive sometime between Tuesday and Thursday to meet defense minister Cao Gangchuan and other military leaders.

[Source: By Julia Reynolds, Monterey Herald, Cal, 16Oct05]

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