Is This the Future of Chinese Submarine Power?

A Chinese Kilo with the red flag​.

There are hints that China might pursue foreign basing for its submarine force.

Between major decisions on a new deployment to Afghanistan and a wholly new Persian Gulf crisis, not to mention the boiling crises in Syria and North Korea, Washington strategists can be forgiven for putting China’s naval buildup on the back burner. As Beijing fills the “near seas”—and now the “far seas”—with new frigates, destroyers and aircraft carriers, the orientation and larger strategy guiding its future submarine force remains an open question that this column has tried to focus on. Moreover, the tendency of Washington analysts has been, rather predictably, to exaggerate the potential threat posed by China’s naval buildup; this columnist has repeatedly argued against that tendency.

Objective assessments of China’s rapid naval modernization must be based on the best possible information regarding the Chinese Navy’s objectives and future plans. An early 2017 paper published as the lead article in a prestigious naval research journal and written by research personnel at the Qingdao Submarine Academy [海军潜艇学院] provides such a baseline document to evaluate Beijing’s developing undersea ambitions. Some of the revelations detailed below are sure to exhilarate Washington’s many hawks, such as the declared imperatives for Chinese submarines as “offensive forces [进攻性兵种]” to operate on “exterior lines [外线兵种]” to “actively defend the ‘Belt and Road’ [积极维护 ‘一带一路’],” to mix it up with adversary ASW forces to gain intelligence [侦察] about enemy doctrine and capabilities, not to mention hints regarding the future overseas supply [海外保障] of Chinese submarines and expected emphasis on developing nuclear submarine capabilities as an “assassin’s mace” [杀手锏] for far-seas operations.

Yet before broaching these points, one should stop and sincerely congratulate the Chinese Navy for so openly discussing such issues. The paper under discussion here represents a significant stride forward for Chinese military transparency, and most Western naval strategists would admit that such a document, while quite unusual in the Chinese context, would not be out of place in U.S. Navy doctrinal statements. In other words, China is hardly the only country to have grandiose undersea ambitions—even if they are still fairly new to the game.

With a nod to the history of the PLA Navy and its unique experience with submarines, the Qingdao Submarine Academy (hereafter QSA) authors assert that a new era requires new thinking, and so they wish to promote transformative concepts and innovation. They suggest that two major ideas from the past need to be shelved and replaced. One idea that dates from the PLA Navy’s strategy of “coastal defense [近海防御]” is the notion that submarines are primarily defensive platforms that have the primary mission of “watching the house and guarding the courtyard [看家护院].” Another dated strategic idea that the QSA authors wish to dispense with is the strategic concept that Chinese submarines should only operate “near to the island chain [岛连附近活动].” Instead, this piece advocates strongly for an expansive, even global submarine strategy, as implied by the research paper’s title: “Several Thoughts on Advancing the Submarine Force to the Far Seas [推进潜艇兵力走向远洋的几点思考].”

As for developing a rationale for this expanding role, the article reliably cites the pronouncement of the Eighteenth Party Congress that China should become a maritime power [海洋强国]. Also predictably, it includes discussion of China’s booming maritime trade and the new requirements to protect this trade. “As national maritime interests are expanding continuously, the ocean’s significance for the survival of the Chinese nation is more and more important,” the QSA authors explain. Without mentioning the “Malacca Dilemma” explicitly, the vulnerability of China’s lengthy maritime “strategic energy corridor [能源战略通道]” is outlined. They assert, moreover, that China faces a definite external threat and must therefore expand it maritime strategic space, observing: “At bases in both Northeast Asia and in Southeast Asia, as well as the base on Guam, the US has deployed advanced air and sea forces in order to control our country’s maritime passages out into the Pacific. By constructing strategic arcs to contain our country, our space for maritime activities has been strictly confined.”

It is, moreover, asserted that the United States and Japan have developed an elaborate antisubmarine system that aims to a “permanent blockade [永远地封锁]” of Chinese submarines within the first island chain. At this point, the authors state emphatically: “[China’s] submarine forces must not only go the Asia-Pacific, [but] they must also go to the Indian Ocean, and then they must go to the Atlantic and to the Arctic Oceans. In this way, the current operational problems of submarine operations can be alleviated and it will also provide a vast maritime strategic space for our country’s rise […可有效缓解我国当面海区潜艇兵力活动困难, 也能为我大国崛起提供广阔的海洋战略空间].” Elsewhere, I have pointed out the likelihood that Chinese periscopes will soon be found in the Atlantic, and here is rather concrete evidence of such intentions directly from the Chinese submarine force itself.