China’s navy chief, Adm. Wu Shengli, strolled the Harvard University campus in a tweed blazer and slacks during a visit to the U.S. last fall, joking with students and quizzing school officials about enrolling some of his officers.
A few days earlier, he became the first Chinese navy chief to attend a 113-nation naval forum in Rhode Island, where he hailed U.S.-China military ties and discussed working together on global maritime challenges.
Shortly after his U.S. visit, Adm. Wu took another trip—this time to the Spratly Islands, an archipelago in the South China Sea where his country appears to be building a network of artificial island fortresses in contested waters. It was his first known visit to facilities U.S. officials fear could be used to enforce Chinese control of nearly all the South China Sea, one of the world’s busiest shipping routes.
As Adm. Wu seeks closer exchanges with the U.S. in his quest to build a modern global navy, Washington faces the dilemma of dealing with China as both a partner and a potential adversary challenging U.S. naval dominance in Asia. “I would say that he doesn’t want to build a navy that’s equivalent to the U.S.,” said Adm. Gary Roughead, the retired U.S. Chief of Naval Operations. “He wants to build a navy that surpasses the U.S.”