CAPITOL HILL: Adm. John Richardson sailed through his Senate confirmation hearing this morning. But two ominous issues breached the surface, hinting at growing conflict between the administration and Hill Republicans over how to handle China.
Richardson, an experienced submariner nominated for Chief of Naval Operations, deftly dodged the difficult questions from Senate Armed Services Committee: Does US-China cooperation on nuclear reactors help their military? Should the US challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea? But as both Beijing and Capitol Hill step up the pressure, he may not be able to dodge for long.
“Admiral, is China an adversary?” Sen. Tom Cotton asked bluntly.
“China is a complex nation,” Richardson replied. “Many of the things they’re doing have an adversarial nature to them,” he said (italics ours), notably the construction of pseudo-islands in the South China Sea.
So why are we helping them build up their nuclear navy? the senator asked.
The Nuclear Question
The US has had a “1-2-3 agreement” on civilian nuclear cooperation with China since the Reagan administration, back when Beijing was a counterbalance to Moscow. That 30-year deal is up for renewal, but Cotton and fellow conservative Mark Rubio are opposing it. The grounds: US civilian reactor technology transferred to China for civilian purposes could end up in military hands. Specifically, Curtiss-Wright AP-1000 pumps — designed to cool Westinghouse nuclear reactors — were transferred to Westinghouse’s Chinese partners, who also just happen to make the pumps for China’s new ballistic nuclear missile submarines (SSBNs). Pumps are one of the noisiest components of a nuclear sub, so better pump technology makes subs harder to find.
“This is very troubling to me,” Cotton said this morning. “I imagine any increase in the capability and lethality of the PLA Navy would also worry you.”
“This is something I obviously watch extremely closely,” said Richardson, a career submariner. The details are highly technical and highly classified, the admiral went on, but the Navy has looked “very closely” at the civil nuclear agreement. He gave it this less than ringing endorsement: “I believe that in the aggregate, we would be better with a renewed successor agreement than without it.”
Cotton pressed him: “Even if you suspected or knew that the PLA Navy was going to divert civilian nuclear technology towards nuclear naval systems?”
“I can say with a fair degree of confidence we are better with this agreement than we are without,” Richardson said.
The admiral’s written answers to the committee’s questions in advance of the hearing go into more detail on the upsides: ” While it is impossible to state that there will be ‘no risk’ [of civilian technology being put to military use], the successor U.S.-China Atomic Energy Act Section 123 Agreement ensures continued U.S. access to China’s civilian nuclear complex, allowing for the development of a culture of best practices on nuclear security and safety, as well as the opportunity to ensure Chinese nonproliferation policies are consistent with international nonproliferation norms.” There’s also the attraction of selling US nuclear reactors to the largest and most energy-hungry country on the planet.
The South China Sea
In both this morning’s hearing and in his written testimony, Adm. Richardson made clear that China’s building program in the South China Sea was “destabilizing.” What he didn’t make clear was what the administration plans to do about it — even when the committee pressed him.
In fact, there are rumors of a disagreement between the White House and the military’s Pacific Command on a crucial question: whether to fly or sail within 12 nautical miles of the new Chinese bases. China claims its constructions in the South China Sea are permanent and inhabited islands, which would legally mean they are each surrounded by territorial waters and airspace for 12 miles in every direction. The US considers them to be artificial and temporary structures, which under international law means they have no legal impact on other nations’ rights of passage in the surrounding seas or airspace. The Chinese have made it clear they think that flying or sailing within 12 nautical miles of these structures would be an unmistakable challenge to their claims.
“Sailing inside 12nm is a key component to any freedom of navigation campaign that seeks to reject China’s claims to these man-made islands,” one Senate staffer told me. “Secretary [of Defense Ashton] Carter‘s speech in Singapore was excellent, but now it’s time we back up his strong words with very visible actions.”
“There seems to be a confusion in our policy,” Sen. Dan Sullivan said at the hearing. At the recent Shangri-la conference in Singapore, he said, “Sec. Carter stated we will continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows (and that) turning an underwater rock into an airfield simply does not afford the rights of sovereignty or permit restrictions on international air and maritime transit. However, PACOM commander [Harry] Harris just two weeks ago at the Aspen Security Forum stated it is US policy to afford a 12-(mile) limit around all (features) in the South China Sea… to include islands and formations.”
“It’s absolutely important that the Navy continue to be present in that region,” Richardson said, “(but) we do have to respect the legitimately claimed territorial boundaries.”
“Does that mean respecting that?” Sullivan said, pointing scornfully to a photo of China’s airstrip atop one of the structures known as Fiery Cross Reef.
“I’d have to at look exactly which of those claims are legitimate,” Richardson demurred. “It’s a dynamic situation there. There are competing claims down there…. We need to get down there, understand the truth, and make that very clear.”
“Mr. Chairman,” Sullivan said, turning to Sen. John McCain (himself no fan of Obama’s foreign policy), “I’ll be submitting questions for the record to make sure the policy of the United States is clarified.”
Updated 3:20 pm with Senate staff comment.