With its controversial seizure and return of a U.S. underwater drone, Beijing may have inadvertently thrust into the spotlight one of the main motivations behind its ramped-up moves in the South China Sea: the quest to create a safe-haven for its sea-based nuclear deterrent.
Submarines, in particular ballistic missile subs, have long figured prominently in China’s desire to match the capabilities and prestige of other major nuclear powers. Slowly but surely, experts say, Beijing has made progress on this front, building a formidable program that began very early in the ruling Communist Party’s history.
But securing the credibility of its overall nuclear deterrent has been a challenge.
“In particular, experts worry that growing U.S. missile defense, conventional precision strike, and space-based surveillance capability together allow for sophisticated preemptive attacks that pose a significant threat to China’s land-based nuclear forces,” Tong Zhao, a fellow at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, wrote in a June report on China’s sea-based nuclear deterrent.
Prompted by these concerns, China has looked to its nuclear missile submarine program — and all that is associated with it — amid an intensifying rivalry with the United States, pulling out all stops in a bid to establish credible nuclear retaliation capabilities.
The battleground for this competition? Beneath the waves in the South China Sea.
In recent years, the strategic waterway has been lumped in with other Chinese “core interests,” a set of critical issues on which there is very little room, if any, for negotiation.
Observers say Chinese strategists are interested in an open ocean patrol strategy, and many reportedly believe that to be the ultimate goal of China’s nuclear missile fleet. First, however, it must secure the South China Sea as a sort of staging ground or bastion for extended operations.
“Given the noise level of the existing Chinese SSBNs (nuclear ballistic missile submarines), the bastion strategy seems to offer a better near-term solution,” Zhao wrote in his report, noting that known Chinese subs remain far noisier than their American counterparts.
According to Zhao, the South China Sea appears to be the best bet for China’s subs, given its depth and other environmental factors.
Even though a large southern portion of the South China Sea is rather shallow — under 100 meters (328 feet) in depth — in much of the area roughly inside China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claim, the continental shelf drops to a deep basin of around 4,000 meters, offering better cover for submarines.
Such a submarine bastion could be a first step toward giving Beijing the ability to break out into the Western Pacific and beyond, putting its subs — and their nuclear missiles — within range of the continental United States.
“Given the fact that the current Chinese submarine-launched ballistic missile — the JL-2 — does not have a range long enough to reach the continental United States from China’s coastal waters, Chinese SSBNs have incentives to practice breaking through the ‘first island chain’ and into the West Pacific,” Zhao told The Japan Times in an interview. The first island chain refers to a line stretching from Japan and Taiwan that China says has been used by the United States to contain it since the Cold War.
But Beijing faces huge obstacles if it seeks to dominate the South China Sea, part of what some analysts have termed a long-term project to create a virtual “Chinese lake.”
China has reclaimed 3,200 acres (1,280 hectares) of land on seven features it occupies in the disputed waters, giving it what the Pentagon says are long-term “civil-military” outposts from which it can project power.
While Zhao disagrees that Beijing is seeking to turn the South China Sea into its own “lake,” he said that China does — for the purpose of enhancing the survivability of its sea-based nuclear deterrent — have interests in strengthening its capability to detect and monitor enemy anti-submarine warfare platforms in the region.
“Some of the China-controlled islands may be helpful for providing logistical support and protection for Chinese SSBNs patrolling in nearby waters. In other words, helping protect Chinese SSBNs may be part of Chinese motivations behind the land reclamation projects,” Zhao said, adding that the projects were primarily driven by China’s desire to reinforce its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Regardless, perhaps the biggest obstacle for Beijing is trade and location: The strategic waterway is home to some of the busiest international commercial shipping lanes in the world and is surrounded by other nations, including fellow claimants to the waters, making encounters with numerous navies inevitable.
For China, though, the U.S. Navy’s presence in the waterway — and its surveillance activities there — have been perhaps the most implacable threat to control of the waters, de facto or otherwise.
These concerns were highlighted Thursday, when the Chinese Navy seized a U.S. unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) in international waters in the South China Sea, prompting a formal diplomatic protest and a demand for its return. The UUV was returned Tuesday.
“The U.S. cannot hide its real agenda by downplaying recent events,” the state-run People’s Daily newspaper said in an editorial Monday written by Hua Yiwen, who it described as an international affairs expert. “The unmanned drone was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to U.S. military actions against China. The U.S. has been developing UUVs for a long time, treating them as a ‘power enhancer’ for its military and a crucial part of its weapons system.”
While Thursday’s seizure was rare in that it was made public, both China and the U.S. have been busy bolstering their surveillance operations in the area in recent years, including the use of UUVs.
“This is not the first time that we seized a U.S. underwater drone in the South China Sea, but the one we seized on Thursday is new and more advanced than before and might carry valuable information just gathered in the South China Sea,” the state-run Global Times newspaper quoted Li Jie, a Beijing-based naval expert, as saying Sunday.
“This is why the U.S. was so nervous and tried to use the media to hype it up this time while it had remained silent before,” the paper quoted Li as saying. “The U.S. was aware that such spying activity is inappropriate.”
The United States “has shown considerable interest in using new technologies like unmanned underwater drones to track and trail Chinese SSBNs,” the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center’s Zhao said in his report, noting U.S. government-sponsored studies about how to deploy such drones near Chinese submarine bases to detect the vessels as they leave and return to port.
In April, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced that Washington would invest more than $8 billion just next year in undersea capabilities “to ensure ours is the most lethal and most advanced undersea and anti-submarine force in the world.”
“That includes new undersea drones — in multiple sizes and diverse payloads — that can, importantly, operate in shallow waters where manned submarines can’t,” Carter said.
China, for its part, has reportedly hustled to match the U.S. technological prowess under the waves.
In an example of this, top Chinese researchers gathered Saturday — just two days after the U.S. drone’s seizure — for what was billed as the nation’s first underwater drone symposium.
This came after Chinese researchers carried out the first test of an underwater glider drone that could challenge the record for the deepest dive, a mark held by a vessel now in use by the U.S. Navy, the South China Morning Post reported in September.
The tests of the Haiyi-7000 underwater glider drone have reportedly piqued the interest of the Chinese military, the paper said.
The Pentagon has said the seized drone, reportedly a Teledyne-Webb Slocum G2 glider with significant military applications, used commercially available technology that sold for about $150,000.
Experts, however, have painted a more nuanced picture.
According to Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, the type of drone that was taken, which resembles an aircraft that flies underwater, is used for oceanographic research to map the underwater terrain and conditions such as temperature, acoustic activity and salinity.
“That’s very useful for the U.S. to sort of map the underwater battle space that China would be deploying submarines into,” Davis said.
But while understanding how the glider concept works is accessible, he added, “it is complex in its execution.”
“In terms of the concept, if you put wings on a drone, you can use the current to glide,” he said. “But exactly how you do that and the technology within that drone, in terms of sensors and guidance, is complex and quite classified.”
While it remains unknown precisely how crucial a part underwater drones currently play in the waters of the South China Sea, the rapid pace of technological breakthroughs means continued deployments are unlikely to abate anytime soon.
“Drones already are and will continue to play a more important role in underwater ‘cat-and-mouse’ games,” Zhao told The Japan Times. “This trend will only increase as autonomous technologies improve. U.S. military doctrines have openly called for prioritizing the deployment of unmanned underwater vessels in the Asia-Pacific region, presumably to counter the perceived threat from China.”
And while the drone seized last week was likely only used for collecting hydrological data that is useful for anti-submarine operations, “U.S. intentions to use underwater drones in the future to actively track and trail Chinese submarines are no secret,” Zhao added.
“Under these conditions, China will for sure develop similar technologies of its own,” Zhao said. “It is high time for the international community to sit down and discuss possible rules of the road for employing unmanned maritime military systems for the sake of avoiding future incidents.”
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