The tug of war over the South China Sea is seen mainly as a struggle among rival claimants —China, Taiwan and several Southeast Asian states — for control of valuable fisheries as well as seabed oil, natural gas and mineral resources.

China’s claim to about 80 percent of the 3.5 million square kilometer sea and its hundreds of atolls, rocks and reefs, has also alarmed outside seafaring and trading nations, including the United States and Japan. They regard the South China Sea as an international maritime highway with free navigation for seaborne trade, unimpeded movement of naval vessels, and unfettered over-flight for military aircraft.

But recent developments in China’s nuclear weapons program suggest that there is another important dimension to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in enforcing its claimed jurisdiction in the semi-enclosed sea: protecting a new generation of nuclear-powered submarines armed with atomic warheads and based at Sanya on China’s Hainan Island. “Without understanding the nuclear dimension of the South China Sea disputes, China’s maritime expansion makes little sense,” says Tetsuo Kotani, a special research fellow at the Okazaki Institute in Tokyo.

One of the new generation subs was first spotted by a commercial satellite at Sanya in 2008. It was tied up to a pier that analysts said was China’s first and so far only demagnetizing facility for submarines. Demagnetization is conducted before deployment to remove residual magnetic fields in the metal of a sub to make it harder to detect by hostile submarines, surface ships and anti-submarine aircraft.

Initially, these new generation Chinese subs and the nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles they could launch while submerged would be able to target potential adversaries in Asia and U.S. bases in the region. Eventually, with longer-range intercontinental missiles, they could cover the whole of the U.S. from launch points in the deep waters of the South China Sea without having to venture too far from their rock shelter tunnels bored into a mountain that forms part of the Sanya naval base for China’s South Sea Fleet. This would give China a more effective deterrent against nuclear attack, one that operated from under the sea in addition to land-based nuclear missiles.

In recent years, China has built up a relatively small but increasingly impressive arsenal of approximately 140 nuclear ballistic missiles either concealed in silos or mounted on special launch vehicles and moved around to different hiding places on land. Each carries a single nuclear warhead.

But earlier this month, a newspaper controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party reported that China was developing the capability do what Russia and the U.S. have the technology to do — put multiple warheads on its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), each capable of hitting different targets. This could greatly increase the number of China’s operational nuclear weapons and overwhelm any missile defence system.

At the same time, China is building a fleet of new JIN-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), known as Type-094. Two are in operation, a third is under construction and may already have been launched, and at least two more are expected to be built.

Meanwhile, China is hoping to complete testing of the JL-2 nuclear-tipped missile for the Type-094 sub, which can carry 12 of the missiles. The U.S. Defense Department’s annual report to Congress in May on China’s armed forces and military strategy noted that the while the JL-2 program had faced repeated delays, it “may reach initial operating capability” within the next two years, giving the Chinese Navy “its first credible sea-based nuclear” deterrent.

The JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is estimated by the Pentagon to have a range of some 7,400 km. This would enable a Type-094 SSBN armed with the missiles and stationed in waters near China to target the state of Alaska, Guam in the western Pacific and other American bases in the Asia-Pacific region, including those in Japan, as well as India and most of Russia (including Moscow), but not the continental U.S.

To reach the U.S. heartland from the South China Sea, the Chinese Navy would either have to develop a longer range SLBM, or send its Type-049 SSBNs through the Philippine or East China seas into the Pacific Ocean through relatively narrow straits that form dangerous choke points for the subs, making them vulnerable to detection and attack in a crisis.

At present, China’s longest range land-launched ICBM can strike targets more than 13,000 km from launch point. A new Chinese ICBM, which some reports suggest was flight tested last month, reportedly has a range of at least 14,000 km.

In addition to adding a nuclear dimension to China’s interests in the South China Sea, having a sea-based nuclear deterrent may pose serious control problems for the Central Military Commission (CMC) which supervises the country’s nuclear arsenal. The CMC and the Chinese Navy have no experience in operating SSBNs in either peacetime or during a crisis. Yet remaining submerged and out of communication for lengthy periods is essential if SSBNs are to remain undetected.

So for the foreseeable future, China’s land-based nuclear missile force is expected to be the mainstay of the country’s deterrent and retaliatory strike capability against the continental U.S. or other faraway targets. But that will be cold comfort for any regional adversary of China that might soon be targeted by a new SSBN fleet armed with nuclear ballistic missiles.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.

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