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International Security 28.4 (2004) 161-196

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Undersea Dragons

China's Maturing Submarine Force

Despite new tensions surrounding the March 2004 presidential elections on Taiwan, the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) have witnessed over the last two years an impressive and unexpected warming of relations. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there have been a series of high-level meetings between U.S. and Chinese leaders. China backed U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan and actively supports the new regime of Hamid Karzai in Kabul.1 The past year has seen substantial U.S.-Chinese cooperation in the sphere of counterterrorism, including the sharing of intelligence and the arrest of several suspected terrorists.2 Surprising many, Beijing has supported the United States on all major United Nations Security Council resolutions related to the 2003 Iraq war. Even more significant, China's quiet efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula have profoundly impressed American observers.3

Many experts are convinced that a major corner has been turned in the United States-China relationship, with Beijing embracing a much more pro-American foreign policy. An alternative explanation, however, holds that Chinese leaders have instead opted for a pause in the evolving Sino-American strategic rivalry. Diplomatic gestures support the optimistic view of United States-China relations, but close inspection of ongoing Chinese military developments provides ample evidence for both caution and concern.

Indeed, while the U.S. military remains focused on the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and Central Asia, China continues its rapid military modernization. [End Page 161] As part of an increasing maritime focus, significant aircraft and destroyer purchases indicate a broad effort to improve combat capabilities. There is little evidence, however, that China will endeavor to field carrier battle groups.4 Moreover, Chinese airpower is constrained by weak aerial refueling capabilities, and its surface fleet lacks adequate air defense.5 Alternatively, preliminary indications suggest that submarines will lead China's new maritime strategic orientation.6

This development is demonstrated most clearly by China's unprecedented signing of a contract with Russia for eight new Kilo-class diesel submarines in May 2002. Contrary to Western forecasts, China's confidence in imported Kilos has not halted domestic production of the new Song-class diesel submarine.7 In addition, China's nuclear propulsion program will soon field the first of its second-generation vessels, which will include both attack submarines and strategic missile boats. Finally, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is undertaking an overhaul of the submarine force's weaponry, training, recruitment, and doctrine. A Chinese appraisal of future naval warfare concludes, "The prospect for using submarines is good, because of their covertness and power.... Submarines are menaces existing anywhere at any time."8 According to another Chinese analyst, "Submarines are the maritime weapons posing the greatest threat to an aircraft carrier formation. Submarines are also our Navy's core force."9 In an unprecedented November 2003 demonstration of [End Page 162] this evolving strength, a Chinese diesel submarine intentionally surfaced and revealed itself only 25 miles off the southwest coast of Japan.

Unclassified studies of Beijing's ability to conduct undersea warfare are rare. Unfortunately, the analyses that have been available to the wider academic community are also misleading, built on highly problematic assumptions. In particular, an article by Michael O'Hanlon in International Security, although relatively accurate concerning the prospects for an amphibious invasion, perilously simplifies the challenge posed by China's submarine force.10 This sanguine approach reflects a broader inclination within the American strategic studies community. Indeed, few in the U.S. national security establishment view Chinese military modernization as a potential menace,11 especially given the immediate nature of other threats such as terrorism and proliferation. Many analysts make the all-too-frequent mistake of extrapolating from decades of peace in the Taiwan Strait. A deeper understanding of Chinese security policy, however, suggests that peace in the strait from the 1960s to the end of the Cold War was the consequence...


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