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China military expanding reach into Arctic region, Pentagon says

The Chinese research vessel and ice-breaker Xuelong arrives in Xiamen, south China's Fujian province, on June 27, 2010. (STR/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

China is accelerating activities in the Arctic as part of its “Polar Silk Road” and trying to promote itself as a “near-Arctic state,” the U.S. Defense Department said.

A growing fleet of icebreakers and civilian research stations in Iceland and Norway could support a strengthened People’s Liberation Army presence in the polar region, the Pentagon said Thursday in its annual report on China’s military. The department cited the potential deployment of nuclear-armed China submarines to the region as one area of U.S. concern.

The report described a Chinese military that was rapidly expanding its reach and capabilities as part of President Xi Jinping’s push to complete a modernization drive by 2035 and build a “world-class” force 2049. That included efforts to establish an aircraft carrier fleet, with the country’s first domestically built vessel expected to join the PLA Navy this year, and the successful test of a hypersonic glide vehicle in August.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing didn’t immediately respond Friday to a faxed request for comment.

China continued to improve its ability to conduct complex joint operations to counter what its leaders view as an increasingly confrontational approach by the U.S., the report said. Last year, Beijing focused efforts to acquire sensitive, U.S. dual-use, or military grade equipment including dynamic-random-access memory, aviation technologies and antisubmarine warfare technologies.

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China placed anti-ship cruise missiles and long-range surface-to-air missiles on the disputed Spratly Islands in South China Sea, the report said, despite Xi’s 2015 statement saying the country “does not intend to pursue militarization” of the vital sea lane. The U.S. withdrew China’s invitation to large-scale international naval exercises in response to the deployment last year.

Arms sales supporting China’s broader foreign policy goals continued to increase, including sales of armed-unmanned-aerial vehicles and precision-strike weapons, the report said. Cai Hong series drones have been sold to “Burma, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates” because China “faces little competition for these sales,” it said.

Still, wary of provoking the U.S., its allies or regional governments, Chinese leaders “employ tactics short of armed conflict to pursue China’s strategic objectives through activities calculated to fall below the threshold of providing armed conflict,” the report said. Beijing continues to use “persuasion and coercion” to limit the growth of pro-independence sentiment on self-rule island of Taiwan, the report said.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported Friday that the U.S. Navy has conducted 92 transits threw the strategic Taiwan Strait since 2007 to assert free-navigation rights. There have been four such operations so far this year, suggesting the Navy was on pace to exceed its annual average of about seven transits.

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(Lucille Liu contributed to this report.)

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© 2019 Bloomberg News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.