Is China's Secret Sub Base Over-hyped?

A new Chinese nuclear-submarine base on Hainan Island in the South China Sea has been billed in much of the Western press as a vast, subterranean “James Bond-style” facility capable of housing scores of “nuclear ballistic missile submarines and a host of aircraft carriers.” Its location and intended use make it a strategically important facility to be sure. But naval and military analysts are telling us much of the reporting about the base has been “fantastic” and “way overblown.”

Sanya Naval Base — as it is to be known — is in fact an under-construction partially-underground submarine facility; and it certainly speaks to China’s ongoing, aggressive military buildup, particularly of its naval forces. But the depth and breadth of the Sanya base in terms of its physical infrastructure, capacity, and the suggestion of a “host” of aircraft carriers  may have been hyped a bit over the past several days. (The Communist state is not yet close to having even one serviceable carrier in its fleet, much less a program to train carrier pilots.)

At least one report has suggested the very nature of the facility would prevent satellite reconnaissance of its activities, to include the comings-and-goings of submarines based there.

One of our naval-analysis sources who has reviewed the satellite images of the base, tells HUMAN EVENTS: “The reports are off-base in terms of how many submarines and surface vessels this base could house. They are building something there, and they are probably going to put some submarines in there. But the numbers will probably be fewer than what is being reported; and it is highly unlikely that the subs would be able to completely submerge within the confines of the base and then leave without being detected. Don’t forget, the Germans and the Russians did the same thing, so this is nothing new.”

Peter Brookes, a former CIA operations officer who also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, agrees.

“The base demonstrates China’s growing strategic interest in projecting power into the South China Sea,” Brookes tells HUMAN EVENTS. “China is building the base to advance its interests and protect its sea lines of communication, especially as it concerns energy and natural resources.”

Most Americans might not be familiar with Hainan Island. It is positioned just south of the Leizhou Peninsula jutting below the Chinese mainland, bordered from the northeast to the south-southeast by the South China Sea, and west by the now-infamous Gulf of Tonkin. Many readers will recall the incident off Hainan Island on March 31, 2001 when a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane was intercepted by two Chinese fighters and collided with one. Forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan, the American crew was detained for 11 days, and released only after the U.S. issued an apology and agreed to reimburse China for the American crew’s food and lodging.

Hainan — home to several military bases — holds great strategic value for China, which has long argued that its territorial waters extend far beyond accepted international conventions: 12 miles beyond the shoreline (roughly the distance to the horizon on a clear day with no obstruction) is considered a state’s territorial waters. The exclusive economic zone (for exploration, drilling, fishing, etc.) extends for 200 miles. 

Most nations abide by the conventions. China, however, disputes much of the territory claimed by other nations in the South China Sea near Hainan. And it does so, as Brookes and others point out, for two primary reasons:

• China wants to ensure it can lay claim to — and protect — any significant undersea energy resources that may be discovered in the region

• China has strategic concerns regarding its ability to protect its oil-supply chain, a portion of which originates in the Persian Gulf and transits from the Indian Ocean through the Malacca Straits and into the South China Sea.

“A new base like Sanya would allow China to put significant assets toward China’s feeling of vulnerability as regards the Malacca Straits,” a naval analyst tells HUMAN EVENTS. “The Chinese have a great fear of a potential foe like the United States being able to cut off that supply.”

Experts contend that though China is undergoing a massive defense rebuilding program — and that in itself is a serious concern and a challenge for the U.S. — senior Chinese commanders have no desire to go “strength on strength” with the U.S. in a naval war.

What China does want to be able to do is forward-deploy asymmetrical forces for any possible contingency (In a war with the U.S., China would rely heavily on submarines, cruise missiles, and land-based aviation to counter any attack or thrust by an American carrier strike group.). And the under-construction Sanya Naval Base is a reflection of that desire. There is no question that Sanya poses serious strategic considerations for the U.S., and there are potential tactical considerations for any naval and air forces operating in the region. But the base — in and of itself — may not be a reason to call 007 out of retirement.