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China has urged the US to elaborate on the USS Connecticut incident and to “fully respond to the concerns and doubts of the countries in the region”. Photo: TNS

South China Sea: Beijing says ‘irresponsible’ US hasn’t clearly explained submarine incident

  • United States has failed to disclose exactly where it happened and what the vessel was doing there, foreign ministry spokesman says
  • The US Navy said the nuclear-powered submarine hit an uncharted underwater mountain in international waters in the Indo-Pacific
Beijing said a US probe into an incident involving a nuclear-powered submarine in the South China Sea last month did not ease concerns over America’s military activities in the region, and that Washington had failed to disclose exactly where it happened and what the vessel was doing there.
The US Navy on Monday said the Seawolf-class submarine USS Connecticut “grounded on an uncharted seamount while operating in international waters in the Indo-Pacific region”, but did not say what caused the incident on October 2. The statement from the US Seventh Fleet said its commander, Vice-Admiral Karl Thomas, would decide if “follow-on actions, including accountability, are appropriate”.

On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the US explanation was far from satisfactory. “Nearly a month after the incident, the US said the submarine hit an unknown sea mountain and blurred the location of the incident by saying it happened in international waters in the Indo-Pacific,” Wang said.


US submarine strikes unknown underwater object in disputed South China Sea

US submarine strikes unknown underwater object in disputed South China Sea

“The US has still failed to disclose the exact location of the incident, the intention of the nuclear submarine navigation, whether it is in the exclusive economic zone or even the territorial waters of another country, whether it has caused a nuclear leak or damage to the marine environment,” he said. “These issues have never been clearly explained, and the incident exposes how irresponsible the US is. We once again urge the US to elaborate on the accident and fully respond to the concerns and doubts of the countries in the region.”

Wang also called for the US to stop its sending warships and military aircraft to make “provocations” in the region.

It comes amid rising tensions between Beijing and Washington, including over the disputed South China Sea and Taiwan.

Beijing demands end to ‘risky’ US operations in South China Sea after sub accident

At least 11 sailors on board the USS Connecticut were injured in the incident, which the US Navy made public on October 6, saying it had hit an unknown object. Beijing demanded that Washington provide an explanation and raised concern over a potential nuclear leak, which the US said had not happened.

A source close to the Chinese navy said Beijing was aware of the location of the collision and its main concern was what the USS Connecticut was doing there.

“It happened in a narrow ocean trench in the South China Sea. So what China is worried about is not the object the USS Connecticut hit, but what it was doing before the accident,” said the source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong described it as “a rare accident in both wartime and peacetime” for a submarine to collide with an underwater mountain, but said it could have been to do with speed. He noted that another US submarine had hit an undersea mountain while moving at full speed near Guam in 2005.


The South China Sea dispute explained

The South China Sea dispute explained
Satellite imagery captured by US private Earth imaging company Planet Labs on October 20 showed that the sonar dome of the USS Connecticut’s nose had been taken out, suggesting its bow sonar system was damaged. The submarine returned to Guam for repair after the incident.

The Seawolf-class submarines are used for specialised intelligence gathering.

According to Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie, the US Navy sends its submarines towards China’s coastline to collect the “voice prints” of People’s Liberation Army vessels.

“Every vessel, including surface and underwater ships, has a unique voice print, just like a human being’s fingerprint,” Li said. “So from this, the Americans can learn about Chinese naval flotillas, their battle tactics and other details.”

He said American submarines had been “coming and going recklessly” in the South China Sea for many years and human error could have been a factor in the USS Connecticut incident.

Li also suggested the US Navy might not be aware that underwater volcanoes had become very active in the region in recent years. Taiwanese researchers discovered eight undersea volcanoes within the same 10km radius in the South China Sea in 2013.

Collin Koh, a research fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said human error was “often a primary cause of such mishaps”.

“It can be a simple act of negligence, or that standard operating procedures are not abided by, or misjudgment of the navigational situation, for example,” he said. “Such human errors … do happen despite the availability of sophisticated technologies on a modern submarine, not least a nuclear-powered one.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: China still waiting for answers on US sub smash