All but unnoticed, except among navies and in specialty press, China is taking her first steps as a member of a very small, elite club: the nations that have ocean-going, power-projecting submarine forces.
Chinese submarines have taken part in naval exercises for many years, and are known to undertake patrol missions in the waters off China’s coast. But a mission currently in progress, confirmed by a Chinese military spokesman last week, constitutes the first publicly announced deployment of a Chinese attack submarine for a distant “power projection” operation, of a kind the U.S., a few of our NATO allies, and Russia have hitherto had to ourselves.
A Chinese Song-class (Type 039) diesel-powered attack submarine (SS) sparked considerable interest when it was observed making a port visit in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 7-14 September. This was the first time a Chinese submarine had been seen in that area, although previous regional reporting indicated that the Chinese navy (the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN) has operated at least one submarine in the Indian Ocean in the past year.
The earlier deployment involved a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), which allowed the PLAN to complete the deployment without making port calls along the way. According to Indian reporting (last link above), Beijing quietly informed six nations (including the U.S. and India) of the deployment, through diplomatic channels, “possibly to prevent adverse reactions in case their SSN encountered technical problems.” The nations notified are all equipped with submarines that patrol the waters the PLAN sub was to transit; it’s likely the Chinese notified those nations to avoid the potentially unpleasant consequences of surprising them at sea.
The deployment of the Song-class submarine breaks ground for a new profile, however. The boat’s mission, to join the Chinese antipiracy task force in the Gulf of Aden, was confirmed in late September in a public statement by Colonel Geng Yangsheng of the Ministry of National Defense.
Moreover, the submarine, hull number SS-0329, must expose itself at least partially during the course of its operations, and requires refueling (and replenishment of stores for the crew) while on a long-haul mission. A diesel-powered sub has strengths and advantages, but one of its weaknesses for “blue-water” operations is that it can’t remain hidden 100% of the time.
China’s decision to deploy such a platform for forward operations is thus a major political move. One aspect of this reality has been demonstrated already. The sub, as mentioned, stopped for a week in Sri Lanka on the way to its distant forward-operating area – something done routinely in recent decades by the ocean-going forces of the United States, the UK, France, the Netherlands, and Russia, but not by China’s submarine force until now.
(There are a number of other nations that operate robust and modern, if small, submarine forces, but those forces rarely deploy at great distances, and then almost exclusively for allied exercises. What makes the Chinese Song’s deployment unusual is its real-world, naval operational purpose, at a considerable distance from China: in an area where China doesn’t have a geographic power base, but wants to project power.)
The Song SS will need refueling and replenishment during her operations as well. It’s not clear where she will go for those services, but she is more likely, in my view, to call in Djibouti or Oman, where Chinese surface ships have pulled in for services, than to go all the way to Sri Lanka. That too would be a new political signal, if it happens. A Chinese sub is a step beyond a destroyer or frigate, in terms of accommodation by a regional nation. The inherent stealth and unique purposes of a submarine make political friendliness toward them a special diplomatic signal.
As noted at the links, NATO has previously deployed at least one submarine to the antipiracy mission off Somalia: a Dutch SS in 2010. I wrote in 2010 about that deployment, and the door it opened to a future submarine deployment by China, once China had joined the multilateral antipiracy operations.
The relatively leaderless, multi-nodal character of the international antipiracy response, which began in late 2008, has ushered both Iran and China into the “blue-water navy” club (see here as well). It has given them a ready pretext – indeed, it has given them cover – for significantly expanding their naval operations.
When I wrote in 2010, China was deploying her most advanced amphibious assault ship to the Gulf of Aden for antipiracy ops – a platform that could hardly be less suitable for the mission. Without the pretext of that operation, there would have been much more justifiable alarm from the region over such a deployment.
The same is now true for the initial deployments of Chinese submarines. India is very concerned, of course. But the fig leaf of appending the subs to the antipiracy mission is in effect being accepted by the Western nations as a justifying – mitigating – factor.
The antipiracy submarine deployments will give China the opportunity to gain experience and confidence in far-flung submarine operations, just as she has done with surface operations. They will also enable Beijing to condition the rest of the world to a Chinese military presence that just keeps growing, and that implicitly borrows political gravitas from the seagoing traditions of the longer-established naval powers – although China herself does not honor those traditions in her own maritime zones. Having China’s navy around is not like having America’s, or Britain’s, or even India’s or Russia’s. But for the time being, and in the convenient context of the antipiracy mission, China can benefit from the implication that it is.
An expanded Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean has been predicted for a number of years now, outlined partly through the framework of China’s so-called “String of Pearls” strategy: her special political connections across the region with nations like Myanmar and Pakistan, and the logistics facilities she has been able to prepare over time. Beijing was coy for years about the reasons for investing heavily in port infrastructure in Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Now, with the submarine visit to Colombo — as part of an operational deployment — the Chinese goal long foreseen by geopolitical analysts is beginning to emerge.
We can be sure Chinese submarine operations will not be limited to tactical missions in forward areas. China has been promising, and the U.S. Navy expects, the inauguration of strategic ballistic missile submarine patrols by the PLAN, with nuclear-armed missiles which could target North America, Russia, or indeed much of the rest of the globe. The days of complacency about Chinese capabilities are behind us: China can make good on many of her threats now. It’s only a matter of time before her confidence with submarine ops changes the maritime environment beyond recognition.
The year 2009 seems, in some ways, much more than five years behind us today. Maritime developments in China, and elsewhere, only highlight the insanity of proposing to put a huge chunk of the Pacific Ocean off-limits to the U.S. Navy’s most badly needed and pertinent undersea operations.