HONG KONG – Beneath the surface of the South China Sea off the tropical Chinese resort island of Hainan, an underwater tunnel guides submarines into a lair reminiscent of a James Bond spy movie.
From this pen the subs can venture in and out of the contested South China Sea hidden from the prying eyes of reconnaissance planes deployed by the U.S. Navy, which for the past half century has enjoyed almost unfettered access to the waters, say military watchers who cite satellite images of the area.
The fleet of diesel and nuclear-powered submarines reflects President Xi Jinping’s efforts to ensure the security of sea lanes vital for feeding the economic growth on which the nation’s stability rests. It’s also provoked discomfort among neighbors bruised by China’s approach to territorial disputes.
As countries from India to Australia and Vietnam spend tens of billions upgrading their underwater fleets, cluttering the sea as well as the sky with the reconnaissance craft that follow, the risk is that a clash that previously might have been limited to coast guard and fishing boats spills into military conflict.
“Countries are saying: we need to put into place some kind of credible force that puts doubt into the mind of a Chinese admiral,” said Bill Hayton, author of “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.” “They are clearly thinking about that because otherwise why are they buying submarines and anti-ship missiles?”
The People’s Liberation Army Navy has 56 attack submarines, of which 51 are conventional diesel-electric and five are nuclear powered, according to a Defense Department report to Congress published in April.
China also has three nuclear-powered submarines that can launch ballistic missiles, and may add five more, according to the Pentagon report. The report said these subs will this year carry the JL-2 ballistic missile, which has an estimated range of 4,600 miles and will “give the PLA Navy its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”
A range of that distance would allow the missiles to reach Hawaii if launched from the Western Pacific, and California if fired from the mid-Pacific, according to Dean Cheng, a research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
The subs, armed with anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes, will help Xi as he seeks to realize another goal: readying the military to fight and win “local wars” in the information age.
Under that scenario China would let loose its submarines, air force and surface and sub-surface missile power, managed by a state-of-art command system that integrates everything from computers to intelligence.
“The level of improvement they have achieved over the past 20 years in platforms – ships, aircraft, missiles, land vehicles, tanks, submarines – isn’t matched by the integration that the Americans are so good at,” said Sam Roggeveen, an analyst at the Lowy Institute in Sydney who specializes in China’s military technology.
Xi continues to call on the military to get into shape, saying on Sept. 22 the PLA should improve combat readiness and sharpen its ability to win a regional war.
The need to glean just how prepared they are explains the U.S. surveillance flights near China’s coast, one of which led to an Aug. 19 encounter that the Pentagon described as “unsafe and unprofessional” after a Chinese fighter jet flew within 20 feet of a U.S. P-8 Poseidon aircraft near Hainan.
“China’s advance in submarine capabilities is significant,” Adm. Samuel Locklear, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told the U.S. Senate in March.
He later told Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that it was unfortunate that defense budget cuts meant the U.S. attack submarine fleet would shrink from 55 to 42 by 2029, according to DefenseNews, a security publication.
“Submarines are probably the most powerful weapon, apart from nuclear bombs, because they are stealthy and quiet and potentially omnipresent,” said Cheng. “In a naval conflict they are most likely to draw first blood.”
China’s modernization program is reflected in the presence of missile-bearing submarines in the South China Sea, where it claims about 90 percent of the area and has disputes with countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines.
Tensions flared in May when China moved an oil rig into waters claimed by Vietnam and again after it completed an upgraded airstrip in the contested Paracel Islands.
China’s artificial island project in the Spratly Islands is another irritant to countries in the region that have territorial claims in the area.
When asked about reports that PLA Navy chief Admiral Wu Shengli last month toured land reclamation work in the South China Sea, defense ministry spokesman Yang Yujun replied that China has indisputable sovereignty over the islands.