WASHINGTON - China's view of its own rising global clout increases the potential for conflict with its neighbors, the U.S. spy chief said Thursday.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that China's neighbors are "more anxious" about Beijing's motives and plans because of its attempts in the past year to advance its territorial claims in the South China Sea and near islands disputed with Japan.
He also cited China's diplomatic support for North Korea after it was accused last year of sinking a South Korean warship and shelling a South Korean island.
Clapper made the comments in written testimony to a House Intelligence Committee hearing on worldwide threats to security.
He linked China's growing confidence to its sustained economic growth and role as a key driver of global recovery.
Clapper's comments are likely to irk China's communist government, which has long-running disputes with several Southeast Asian nations over islands in potentially resource-rich areas of the South China Sea. It waged a prolonged diplomatic standoff with Japan after a confrontation between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coast guard vessels in September. Tensions have since eased.
The United States is widely seen to have benefited from China's assertive behavior as longtime allies in Asia and even former U.S. enemies like Vietnam have looked to deepen ties with Washington as a hedge against Beijing.
Clapper noted that China's President Hu Jintao had affirmed his commitment to peaceful international relations during a state visit to Washington last month and recently tried to urge restraint on North Korea -- after the ship sinking and island shelling pushed the rival Koreas close to war.
But the U.S. remained "attentive" to the possibility that Beijing's confidence "could fuel more assertive Chinese behavior, or increase the potential for unintended conflict between China and its neighbors, especially in the maritime realm," he said.
The Obama administration has sought to cultivate cordial ties with China. That reflects the deep economic interdependence between the two countries and Beijing's emergence as a major global power. China is also a chief creditor for the U.S., holding about $900 billion of Treasury debt that helps plug America's gaping deficit.
Asked if the U.S. debt represented a national security threat, Clapper told lawmakers that it does and in his view, "we have to deal with it."
Philip S. Goldberg, chief of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, also said the debt was a "constant area of concern" in U.S. foreign relations, and "something that we have to deal with whenever we sit down with China and other countries."