China is on the cusp of achieving a long-standing goal: fielding a submarine fleet that can rival even the US’s naval supremacy in the Pacific,Jeremy Pagewritesfor The Wall Street Journal.
Page reports that China has made significant progress in developing a sea-based nuclear deterrent — a group of nuclear-armed long-range subs that’s nearly ready for deployment.
Today, China has one of the largest fleets of attack submarines in the world. Beijing can lay claim to six nuclear-powered attack vessels alongside an estimated 53 diesel-powered subs.
China also currently has three nuclear ballistic “boomer” submarines, according to the US Office of Naval Intelligence. These subs can stay at sea for long stretches time, making them a strategically crucial part of a country’s nuclear deterrent.
Whereas nuclear-powered attack submarines can undertake multi-week missions at sea, their diesel counterparts are limited in range and must surface more regularly. This limits the utility of these attack vessels to a more defensive role along China’s border and within the East and South China Seas.
However, it is the boomer submarines that can send a message to the US and flip the balance of power in the Pacific.
According to the WSJ, the boomers’ missiles are capable of hitting Hawaii and Alaska from the coast of China, while from the mid-Pacific the vessels could target the continental US.
Chinese boomers can also be outfitted with nuclear ballistic weaponry. It’s a possible replay of the Cold War dynamic in which boomers served a seaborne nuclear deterrent for the US and the USSR. This was an important element of the rival powers’ nuclear architecture: hard-to-detect sea-faring submarines can launch an attack even if a country’s land-based military facilities are wiped out in a nuclear first strike.
China’s leaders clearly realises the importance of an under-sea missile capability. According to a commentary that China’s navy chief Admiral Wu Senghli wrote in a Communist Party magazine, the boomers are “a trump card that makes our motherland proud and our adversaries terrified. It is a strategic force symbolizing great-power status and supporting national security.”
For Vice Amd. Robert Thomas, the commander of the US Seventh Fleet, the boomers and China’s nuclear attack submarines convey a clear message to Beijing’s potential rivals.
Thomas told the WSJ that the vessels “say that, ‘We’re a professional navy, we’re a professional submarine force, and we’re global. We’re no longer just a coastal-water submarine force.”
The professionalism and capabilities of the Chinese submarine force may alter the US’s calculations as the Navy undergoes its “pivot to Asia.” And China is currently locked in a host of maritime border disputes with US allies in the region.
In the East China Sea, China and Japan both lay claim to the Senkaku Islands. Although the island chain is uninhabited, the region is thought to have large natural gas reserves and plentiful fisheries. The islands are administered by Japan, and China has recently began allowing large numbers of fisherman to go to the islands in an attempt to achieve de facto control over the area.
In the South China Sea, China has pushed its maritime boundaries into areas in contention with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. This contention has already led to confrontations between China, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
The US is treaty-bound to defend Japan and the Philippines if either country is attacked. Any maritime confrontation thus has the potential — however vague, at the moment — to trigger a wider conflict between China and the US. A Chinese military professor has even warned that these maritime disputes could potentially lead to the next world war.
As it is, any maritime conflict could lead to the US having to choose between abandoning the defensive treaties that formed the backbone of American strategy in Asia, or risking a larger confrontation with China’s ever-growing military.
China’s new submarines are a continuation of China’s attempts to match their military capabilities to the US’s. But it isn’t the only area where the two are competing. China and the US are locked in an arms race in development of hypersonic missiles and the world’s first aircraft carrier-borne stealth jets. And China is trying to build up its first air craft carrier group, although it’s had some technical difficulties so far.
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