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Spratly Islands dispute is tip of iceberg, U.S. fears China’s undetectable submarines

  • 2015-11-10 15:00:00
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(Friday: November 20, 2015 – p. 78-79)


 The Maritime Self-Defense Force quietly dispatched two escort vessels, Suzunami and Makinami, when the USS Lassen, an Aegis-equipped ship, sailed for the South China Sea to warn against China’s construction of an artificial island in the waters around the Spratly Islands.


 The MSDF alternates units conducting anti-piracy operations off Somalia every four months. The Suzunami and the Makinami were initially scheduled to travel to the African country via the South China Sea, but they diverted from the route to perform a “special mission.”


 “The two escort ships were on standby around Miyako Channel,” said Hidemichi Katsumata, a leading security scholar and a professor at the Nihon University of Advanced Research Institute for the Sciences and Humanities. “They were on the mission to prevent Chinese naval ships from encroaching on [Japan’s] territorial waters around the Nansei Islands in retaliation for the ‘freedom of navigation’ operations by the U.S. military.”


 For Chinese naval vessels to advance into the Pacific Ocean, they need to traverse either of the two wide, deep-water waterways: Miyako or Bashi Channel. In other words, controlling these channels can contain Chinese naval vessels in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.


 While China is looking to move into the Pacific Ocean, Japan and the U.S. want to prevent this by all means. Katsumata argues that submarines hold the key for both parties.


 Katsumata explains: “Japan refrained from conducting sonar buoy exercises using P-3C patrol planes from two years ago to last year due to the serious dearth of the sound detectors. This is a clear indication that China is sending many submarines into the waters around Japan. The U.S. naval force is also working hard to detect Chinese submarines by deploying the ocean surveillance ship Impeccable. During the era of the Cold War, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union experienced a nuclear-powered submarine collision in the vast ocean. The likelihood of submarine clashes between the U.S. and China or Japan and China is growing.”


 China’s submarine technology has significantly improved compared to a decade ago. Chinese submarines are as quiet as Japanese ones. They can be detected only if they are within a distance of around 1 km.


 Another threat is looming. China is clandestinely working to build a submarine base on Hainan Island located to the north of the South China Sea.


 “A U.S. intelligence satellite shows that many Chinese submarines sail out from a base in Sanya on Hainan Island or Qingdao in Shandong province,” Katsumata said. “But the Qingdao base is facing Bohai Gulf, which is shallow and not cut out for operating submarines. China attaches strategic importance to Hainan Island, which faces the deep South China Sea. It has been working to build an ‘underwater dock’ at the Sanya base over the past decade. Now, the plan might have been materialized to some extent.”


 China is estimated to have 30 to 50 state-of-the-art submarines, including nuclear-powered ones. If obsolete fleets are included, the number is substantial. Meanwhile, Japan possesses about 20 submarines.


 It is not easy to detect submarines that are deployed from an underwater dock. If Chinese submarines sail out from the clandestine underwater base and clear the Bashi Channel, nuclear-powered submarines carrying nuclear-tipped, long-range ballistic missiles could be soon unleashed in the ocean, which may bring the U.S. mainland within its reach.


 Katsumata notes: “If China can deploy a nuclear-powered submarine in the Pacific Ocean capable of launching long-range ballistic missiles, it can build a ‘power balance” relationship similar to the one that the U.S. and the Soviet Union had during the Cold War period and pose a threat to the U.S. That is what China wants in the end. To control waters where freedom of navigation is ensured, winning air supremacy becomes all the more important. The reason China is building an artificial island in the Spratly Islands and constructing a runway there to accommodate fighter jets and bombers is to seize air supremacy.”


 An artificial island is better because it is visible. But once construction of a clandestine underwater base is completed, it will become more difficult to detect the Chinese submarines that are becoming increasingly sophisticated.


 At sea, the U.S. Aegis ship has belatedly moved to keep a close eye on China. Now the Chinese naval force, which is currently contained in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, is stepping up its efforts to challenge the superpower by breaking through the encirclement. (Slightly abridged)

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