South China Sea air strips’ main role is ‘to defend Hainan nuclear submarine base’
The real reason for China’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea is to provide a ring of protection for its fleet of advanced nuclear submarines based on the southern tip of Hainan Island, experts say
China’s underwater military strategy in the South China Sea, which remained concealed for the past two decades, suddenly emerged after an international tribunal rejected most of Beijing’s territorial claims in the hotly contested waters.
On July 12 – the same day the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague announced that China’s claims over the resource-rich and strategically vital South China Sea region had no legal basis – a photograph of China’s most advanced nuclear-powered submarine was “leaked” and published on many mainland military websites.
The photograph, revealing the expanded type 094A “Jin-class” submarine, led to speculation that the vessel might be capable of delivering China’s new generation, intercontinental-range ballistic missile, the JL-3, whose estimated range of 12,000km would enabling it to reach the United States from the South China Sea.
“I believe the type 094A, which has been closely monitored by the US, was deliberately ‘leaked’ to warn the US,” Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Dong told the South China Morning Post.
On Monday Admiral Wu Shengli, of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, told visiting US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson in Beijing that China would not compromise its sovereignty and would press ahead with construction of facilities in the South China Sea.
Wu also warned that “the Chinese navy is fully prepared to cope with military provocation.”
As Beijing’s state media repeatedly attacked the ruling of the tribunal – which Beijing has refused to recognise – President Xi Jinping said that China’s “territorial sovereignty and marine rights” in the seas would not be affected.
The South China Sea is one of the world’s busiest trade routes, through which more than US$5 trillion of maritime trade passes each year between the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific Ocean.
However, Beijing has another – arguably more important – reason for prizing the 3.5 million square km area of waterway. It regards the waterway as crucial for providing its expanded submarine fleet, stationed the Yulin naval base in Hainan, with unrestricted access to the waters of Pacific Ocean.
The East China Sea has only a few, narrow underwater channels, which means its submarines can easily be monitored. But the South China Sea features underground submarine facilities with a tunnel access, shielding Chinese submarines that enter the South China Sea from the prying eyes of US reconnaissance satellites.
“No matter what the international arbitration rulings said, China will keep pushing ahead with its maritime ambitions in the South China Sea because it regards it as a ‘fortress’ that will enable its military expansion,” Beijing-based military commentator Song Zhongping told the Sunday Post.
“The South China Sea provides the only route for China to establish itself as a real maritime power.
The area has several underwater channels and straits, which will allow China’s submarine fleet to break through the United States’ first and second island-chain blockades, which have been attempting to keep China’s maritime forces contained in Asia.
“That’s why Beijing carefully chose [to centre] its naval and submarine headquarters in Hainan province many years ago.”
China declared a U-shaped nine-dash line, which includes 80 per cent of the area of the South China Sea, in 1953, with James Shoal, located about 80km off the coast Malaysia’s Sarawak state, at the bottom. Before 2000, Beijing builtAsia’s biggest nuclear-powered submarines base in Yulin, Hainan’s southernmost port.
Song said that in the past the US had tried to form two lines to contain China at sea. The first, shaped like a fishing hook, ran from the Russian controlled Kuril Islands south towards the Philippines and then westwards past the coasts of Brunei and Malaysia before curling up towards Vietnam in the South China Sea. The second line was further from the Chinese coast, running south from Japan towards the eastern most islands of Indonesia.
Beijing believed these two lines targeted socialist countries in the area that were aligned with the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Chinese military believed the US turned its focus on Beijing.
In June, the British-based IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly reported that state-owned China State Shipbuilding had proposed constructing a sonar surveillance system, nicknamed the “underwater great wall” project, featuring a network of ship and submarine surface sensors that could significantly erode the undersea warfare advantage of US submarines to help Beijing control the South China Sea.
Ashley Townshend, a research fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said China’s underwater network and facilities on Woody Island and other artificial islands were aimed at enhancing Chinese navy’s control of the South China Sea.
“If China can use its military installations in the South China Sea to defend its submarines from air, sea, underwater, and outer space threats – a very big if – it may succeed in turning [the waterway] into a bastion for its nuclear-armed submarines,” he said.
Even mainland naval experts have acknowledged that the airstrips and other defence facilities on the artificial islands in the Spratly Islands are part of efforts to expand Yulin naval base’s power over the South China Sea , which includes the 2,000m-deep Bashi Channel.
However, the waterway also serves as an important thoroughfare for US naval vessels from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean region, said Alexander Neill, a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia.
“US aircraft carriers regularly transit the South China Sea on their way to operations in the Middle East,” he said. “So to challenge freedom of navigation of US aircraft carriers and submarines that protect them interferes with some key national security concerns for the US as well as active operations.
“Chinese submarine deployments in the Spratly Islands would defeat the purpose of stealth, and expose them to further detection by the US. Given that China is placing some of its strategic nuclear deterrent on submarines, this is a risky proposition ... Submarine deployments in the Spratlys could also be used as part of China’s ‘self-defence’ requirement in response to US naval freedom of navigation operations.”
Last October, the Pentagon sent the destroyer USS Lassen to within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef, one of Chinese artificial islands in the Spratlys, on a so-called “freedom of navigation” operation.
Washington and Beijing accused each other of escalating tensions and militarising the disputed waters, which are claimed wholly or in part by mainland China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
“China’s long-term goal is to build a real ‘blue’ water navy with global reach,” Song said. “It is starting to expand its influence further from the region.
He said the submarine base, and other construction projects in the Spratly Islands, were parts of its bigger overall strategy to fully control security in the region “through traditional and non-traditional military means”.
US defence officials said China had deployed two J-11 fighter jets and bolstered its advanced surface-to-air missile system on Woody Island, known as Yongxing in Chinese, while four of eight shipped based HQ-9 short range missile launchers deployed to the area were operational.
Woody Island is the largest island in the Paracel chain of islands in the South China Sea and is the adminstrative centre of Sansha provincial-level city created in 2012 and includes much of the South China Sea claimed by China.
Beijing installed a runway on the island in the early 1990s, which lies about 330km southeast of the Yulin submarine base.
The US Navy operated 75 nuclear-powered submarines in 2014, including 15 of the more modern Virginia or Seawolf-class designs, according to the World Nuclear Association.
However, it deploys only four Los Angeles-class submarines in the Asia-Pacific region, which are stationed at the US naval base on Guam.
The PLA Navy now has about 70 submarines, 16 of them are nuclear-powered, which were based mostly in Yulin, according to the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress.
“The South China Sea is the fortress protecting China’s access to the India Ocean route, which is also Beijing’s oil lifeline, with Woody Island serving as the bridgehead of Xi’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ development initiative,” Wong said. “That’s why so many advanced weapons have been deployed there.”