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China has reportedly installed listening devices deep underwater. These devices could be used to study oceans or to track submarines. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Beijing that the move reveals clues about China's strategy in the Pacific.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The official People's Daily newspaper reported late last year that Chinese scientists lowered acoustic sensors into the Mariana Trench near the island of Guam in the western Pacific. That trench is 7 miles below the ocean's surface, and it's not easy to make a sensor that can withstand the massive pressure that far down. But why put the sensors down so deep so far from China's shores?
LYLE GOLDSTEIN: Scientifically, it actually makes a lot of sense because in deeper water, the sensors are much more effective.
KUHN: Lyle Goldstein, a China expert at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., says that China put listening devices in shallow waters along its coastline a decade ago. But now they're going farther offshore and deeper.
GOLDSTEIN: This is part of a trend where the Chinese really understand the nature of submarine acoustics. And they're going after some pretty high-tech stuff.
KUHN: Of course, the U.S. Navy has far more high-tech stuff than China has. But China has been closing the gap by developing missiles and warplanes that can hit U.S. aircraft carriers.
GOLDSTEIN: But below the surface of the ocean, the situation has not changed so much. In other words, the U.S. advantage is maintained. But this is a sign, among many signs, that it's beginning to change. And so we have to be on our game.
KUHN: China finds itself at a strategic disadvantage not just because of U.S. military superiority, but because of geography. If the South China Sea is China's backyard, so to speak, then Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia are like a chain of islands encircling that yard. Zhu Feng is an expert on the South China Sea at Nanjing University. He says that for China, the question is not who gets into its backyard but how it gets out.
ZHU FENG: (Through interpreter) The island chains are a nightmare for the development of China's maritime forces. The nightmare is that if our warships and planes want to head for the Pacific, they can be constrained by America's allies on our borders.
KUHN: Lyle Goldstein points out that the U.S. and Japanese navies are deployed mostly in the northern part of the Pacific and U.S. missile defenses are concentrated in Alaska. So the best way for China to offset the U.S.'s military advantage is to send its nuclear submarines south.
GOLDSTEIN: They may need to leave the South China Sea, go into the South Pacific so they could launch a weapon, you know, against the United States. So there's a nuclear strategy component to the whole South China Sea equation.
KUHN: In recent years, China has spent a lot of effort to stake its territorial claims in the South China Sea. It's built sandy reefs there into fortified islands. But Zhu Feng does not think that the islands would be very useful in the event of a conflict with the U.S. Nor does he think the listening devices or any other technical breakthroughs will help China to break out of its encirclement.
ZHU: (Through interpreter) If we want to get past the island chains, we must undermine the U.S.'s military alliances. And that's not possible. As China rises, Japan and South Korea and Southeast Asian nations are only becoming more reliant on the U.S. for their security.
KUHN: At best, Zhu says, the acoustic sensors may boost China's naval confidence and help it to learn a little more about U.S. naval movements in China's neighborhood. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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