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What catches this Bystander’s eye in the U.S. Defense Dept’s newly published assessment of China’s military capabilities is the expansion of the navy, particularly its submarine fleet. The People’s Liberation Army-Navy can now deploy the world’s largest number of conventionally powered submarines, the result of a decade-and-a-half long program of building and modernizing the fleet which has been putting three new boats a year into the water.
China’s newest Song-class submarines, of which it has at least 13, are capable of launching anti-ship cruise missiles with a range of 100 nautical miles while beneath the waves. It also has a dozen Russian Kilo-class subs with similar capabilities. The PLA-N has also being developing its newer Yang subs, capable of staying submerged for up to a fortnight, more than three times longer than its older subs.
It is also building a new generation of nuclear powered subs, including the new Jin-class, some of which will carry ballistic missiles with a range of 4,000 nautical miles, sufficient to reach western U.S. states, though the program is not going altogether smoothly by all accounts (more detail — and a more sanguine view of all this — a the FAS Strategic Security Blog) . If the problems can be ironed out, the Jin-class subs, which will be based at Hainan Island facing the strategically sensitive South China Sea, will give China a sea-going nuclear deterrent for the first time.
This all amounts to a clear challenge to America’s traditional naval dominance of the Western Pacific, and most immediately Washington’s ability to go to the aid of Taipei in the event of an armed conflict. But the capability of the navy being built by Beijing could support the conduct of military operations in Asia well beyond Taiwan. It potentially changes the regional security balance significantly. America’s Defense Dept. policymakers are rightly concerned by China’s military build-up, of which the submarine fleet is a leading edge.
It is conventionally held that to be considered a superpower, a nation needs to have economic, diplomatic and military power and the ability and appetite to project it around the world. Piece by piece, sub by sub, China is getting there.