— -- With China sending five Navy ships into the Bering Sea north and west of Alaska for the first time ever, the nation’s top military officer says the move highlights the need for both the U.S. and China to work to avoid "miscalculations and interactions that could be unsafe at sea and in the air."
In an exclusive interview with ABC News’ Martha Raddatz, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the vessels operating in international waters close to Alaska indicate to him that China is “developing capabilities to expand their reach” as they continue to pursue economic interests.
Dempsey said that the more China asserts itself, “the more they are likely to interact with us and the more responsibility we both have to avoid miscalculation and interactions that could be unsafe at sea and in the air.”
“It tells me we should be more engaged with them and it tells me that we have to help allow China to become peaceful and prosperous and rise economically without becoming threatening” to U.S. allies in the region, Dempsey said, also noting that the U.S. has five alliances in the Pacific region “and we intend to live up those alliances.”
More of General Dempsey's interview will air this Sunday on “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”
Pentagon confirmed Wednesday that the vessels had recently entered the Bering Sea and were operating in international waters north of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
"We respect the freedom of all nations to operate military vessels in international waters in accordance with international law,” said Commander Bill Urban, a Pentagon spokesman. “We are aware of the five People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships in the Bering Sea. This is the first time we have observed PLAN ships in the Bering Sea.”
A U.S. defense official said the vessels include three combat ships, an amphibious ship and a replenishment vessel that had been participating in an ongoing joint Russian-Chinese military exercise taking place in the waters of the Sea of Japan.
The vessels were tracked by the U.S. moving northeast towards the Bering Sea where the official says the U.S. continues to monitor their operations.
The official says it is unclear for what specific purpose China may have moved the ship’s into the Bering Sea but said "they’re being there indicates an interest in the Arctic region."
The Arctic Circle begins south of the Bering Strait about 600 to 700 miles north of where the Chinese ships are currently located in the Bering Sea.
On Wednesday, President Obama visited a region of Alaska in the Arctic Circle as part of a three day visit focusing on the impact of climate change in the Arctic.