China’s South Sea Fleet gets new unit as military looks to boost its presence in disputed waters

Submarine rescue unit established to support broader range of operations as Beijing seeks to enhance its fighting capabilities

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 October, 2017, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 October, 2017, 9:10am

The Chinese South Sea Fleet has set up a new marine rescue squadron as part of moves by the People’s Liberation Army to step up its battle readiness and deploy more submarines to the region.

The new unit will enhance the navy’s capacity to conduct missions further afield, military observers said.

The unit was set up during the “latest round of military reform”, which was announced by the unit political commissar during a session devoted to studying the political report delivered by President Xi Jinping at the Communist Party congress on Wednesday.

“The army has to be prepared for battle,” Ke Hehai was quoted as saying by the PLA Daily on Thursday.

In his speech Xi had pledged to transform the PLA into a world-class fighting force by 2050.

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The North Sea Fleet established a marine rescue squadron in 2011, which is designed to minimise losses in the event of submarine accidents.

Having a similar unit in the South China Sea is a signal of the fleet’s enhanced status.

The South Sea Fleet’s area of responsibilities include the northern regions of the Taiwan Strait and southern areas from James Shoal, including the Paracel Islands, Macclesfield Bank and the disputed Spratly Islands.

Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military affairs commentator, said the fleet had an increasing need for a rescue unit as it was carrying out more missions.

“It is a sign that the fleet is getting itself more ready for battle,” Ni said. “When the army is stressing more on combat readiness, how can a navy fleet not be equipped with a rescue unit? Rescue squadrons are crucial in war.”

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The South Sea Fleet plays a key role in asserting China’s territorial claim over the disputed waters, where a number of Southeast Asian nations and Taiwan also claim sovereignty.

China has deployed most of its advanced nuclear submarines in the South China Sea, according to satellite images from overseas think tanks.

But the increasing number of submarines in the area raises the risk of accidents or of being overwhelmed by powerful underwater eddies.

In 2014, a new diesel-powered submarine referred to as “No 372” suffered a near-fatal malfunction when it came close to plunging into a 3,000-metre trench.

A sudden fall in water density and a subsequent change in water pressure caused a number of equipment failures including the bursting of a key pipe.

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This led to flooding that threatened to put the engine room out of action.

After three minutes of desperate effort, which included the sealing of all flooded chambers, the submarine was able to make it back to the surface.

“When accidents happen, [submarines] cannot rely on the rescue unit of the North Sea Fleet,” Collin Koh, a maritime security expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said.

“Many submarines in the region are coming into service for regional navies. It triggers the risk of sea traffic and accidents.”

Koh also said that in future the Chinese navy would expand its range of operations and would need to enhance its rescue capabilities accordingly.