WASHINGTON — The American aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk and a Chinese nuclear submarine squared off in international waters off China's coast this fall in a maritime encounter that demonstrated the growing potential for naval conflict between the United States and China, The Times has learned.
Shortly after the incident, which occurred in the Yellow Sea on Oct. 27-29, China served notice through a U.S. military official in Beijing that the next time such a situation arises, China's orders will be to shoot to kill, Pentagon officials confirmed this week.
Although in the end no shots were fired in the high-seas confrontation, U.S. officials acknowledge that it was serious. The captain of the Kitty Hawk dispatched anti-submarine-warfare aircraft to drop sonic devices designed to track the nuclear sub, and Chinese jet fighters scrambled and flew within sight of the American planes.
Finally, after the Chinese submarine withdrew to its base at the port of Qingdao, the U.S. aircraft carrier was pulled out of the area. The Kitty Hawk, whose home port is San Diego, had been used earlier to project American power in the Persian Gulf and off the coast of Somalia before it was transferred in July, at the height of the Korean crisis, to an American naval base in Japan.
The encounter underscored the growing maritime tensions between the U.S. Pacific Fleet and China, which is rapidly developing a blue-water navy. U.S. officials say they found the nuclear submarine in open waters where they had rarely spotted Chinese vessels before. There had been one other instance, in early September, in which U.S. Navy ships encountered a Chinese submarine, but that episode ended much more quietly.
The previously unreported incident also highlights some of the gunboat diplomacy involving the United States, China and North Korea that surrounded the U.S.-North Korean nuclear agreement reached Oct. 17.
In September, the Kitty Hawk was dispatched to waters off North Korea in what a U.S. military official acknowledged was a show of force intended to influence nuclear negotiations in Geneva--in roughly the same way that the dispatch of American troops had induced Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras and his military regime to give up power in Haiti.
"I think the Haiti example is a good example of how . . . some very strong military forces can influence diplomacy," Adm. Ronald Zlatoper, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, told the newspaper Stars & Stripes at the time. He also said the deployment of the aircraft carrier near North Korea was "significant because, in the past, we haven't had a carrier battle group presence in this region."
The Navy's carrier battle group included not only the Kitty Hawk but also three cruisers, one frigate, one submarine, two logistics ships and an estimated 10,000 American naval personnel.
To the apparent consternation of Clinton Administration officials, the Yellow Sea incident took place less than two weeks after Secretary of Defense William J. Perry traveled to Beijing to try to improve military cooperation between the United States and China.
Pentagon officials have been watching as China has rapidly increased its naval strength, with the aid of some purchases from what was once the Soviet Union's navy. U.S. officials said this week that the Chinese navy recently ordered four conventional submarines from Russia and that one of those left St. Petersburg recently for refitting in another port.
The nuclear submarine encountered by the Kitty Hawk is one of five operated by China's navy. It is 330 feet long, weighs 5,000 tons and carries torpedoes, U.S. officials say. U.S. intelligence officials say the nuclear submarines don't often operate in the open ocean but that their operations have picked up lately.
Harlan W. Jencks, a UC Berkeley expert on the Chinese People's Liberation Army, wrote in a recent article that leaders in Beijing now view the American military presence in the Pacific as being "at least implicitly" in opposition to China. "Recent U.S. Navy exercises with Southeast Asian navies casting China as the potential troublemaker have reinforced this perception," he explained.
In the Yellow Sea incident, American anti-submarine aircraft detected the Chinese nuclear submarine off the Shandong peninsula, about 200 miles from the Kitty Hawk, Pentagon officials said. The Chinese vessel was found through electronic monitoring devices. At times during the three-day encounter, it operated at periscope depth, about 35 to 40 feet below the surface.
For a time, the Chinese submarine eluded the carrier group, and American planes began dropping devices known as sonobuoys in an attempt to relocate it. After they found the ship, the Kitty Hawk and the U.S. planes continued to track it. In response, the Chinese air force at one point sent its jet fighters toward the aircraft dispatched by the Kitty Hawk.