Experts attempting to understand the strategic aims behind China's aggressive military expansion have generally focused on Taiwan. But a new naval base points at Beijing's significant and growing interest in projecting power into waters far from the Taiwan Strait. China, in fact, is equipping itself to assert its longstanding and expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, and this plan could raise tensions well beyond the region.
The new base is near Sanya, a city on the southern tip of Hainan Island. It's an ideal place for a naval base, and a significant expansion compared to the nearby naval base in the port city of Yulin. Sanya features much larger piers for hosting a large fleet of surface warships, a new underground base for submarines and comfortable facilities that would attract technically proficient soldiers and sailors. Its location will allow China to exert greater dominance over disputed territories of the South China Sea; to place a much larger naval force closer to sea lanes crucial to Asia's commercial lifeblood; and to exercise influence over the critical Straits of Malacca.
While construction of this new base has only recently been visible via commercial satellite imagery, since 2002 military and security officials in three Asian governments have conveyed to this analyst details, and at times concerns, about China's construction of a major naval base at Sanya. It's not just a matter of the base's existence, but of what Beijing appears to intend to do with it. Officials in two of these governments have pointed to a unique feature of this base: a large new underground facility designed to house nuclear and non-nuclear submarines. In a conversation at an academic confernece in late 2004, a general in China's People's Liberation Army admitted that Beijing was building a new base on Hainan, but denied there was an underground facility.
New high-resolution satellite imagery, however, appears to belie the general's statement. Acquired by Jane's Information Group from satellites of the DigitalGlobe Corporation, this commercially available imagery shows cave openings around the Sanya base consistent with another known PLA underground submarine base in Jianggezhuang near the Bohai Gulf. Other openings on the opposite side may have facilitated excavation or could serve as weapon- or supply storage areas. The size of the underground submarine facility is unknown, although one Asian military source has suggested it will hold at least eight submarines. There is space in this area for a supported underground structure that could house more than 20 subs.
Sanya will prove crucial to China's strategic nuclear and power projection ambitions. The Bohai Gulf in the north of the country, the location for the base of the first PLA nuclear ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), is too shallow to support nuclear deterrent patrols. But with the opening of the Sanya base, China's new Type 094 SSBNs can soon find safer 5,000-meter-deep operating areas south of Hainan Island.
The Pentagon projects that the PLA will build five Type 094 SSBNs. Should the submarine-launched ballistic missiles on these submarines contain multiple warheads, as some Asian military sources suggest, the SSBN fleet based at Sanya could eventually house up to half of the PLA's total nuclear missile warheads.
As such, China is going to invest in the facilities and forces needed to defend these vital strategic assets. Sanya has piers necessary to base a far larger force of surface warships, a new large pier, and many new housing and headquarters buildings in this attractive resort area. Both to protect its SSBNs and to defend China's growing interest in securing sea lanes to critical resources in distant areas like Africa, the Persian Gulf and Australia, Sanya can be expected to host future Chinese aircraft carrier battle groups and naval amphibious projection groups. Some Chinese sources suggest that the PLA could eventually build four to six aircraft carriers.
This concentration of strategic naval forces at Sanya will likely heighten China's longstanding desire to consolidate its control over the South China Sea. In 1974, 1988 and 1995, China used military force to capture Vietnamese- and Philippine-controlled or claimed islands and reefs. Its most recent acquisition, Mischief Reef, located about 200 kilometers off the Philippine island of Palawan, now contains two large concrete structures. The PLA appears to have a constant ship presence in this reef, which is very close to one of Asia's key maritime superhighways.
Now Beijing also has the Sanya base at its disposal. And sure enough, in mid-November 2007, the PLA held major naval and air exercises south of Hainan near the disputed Paracel Islands, prompting protests from Vietnam. Either in conjunction with this exercise or soon after, the first Type 094 SSBN moved to Sanya, where it is today -- as caputured by DigitalGlobe satellite images. The implication is clear: Sanya will serve as a base from which to assert China's dominance in the crowded South China Sea.
China and the U.S. have already tangled around Hainan. On April 1, 2001, a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic reconnaissance aircraft flying in international airspace near Hainan tangled with a PLA Navy jet fighter. The Chinese pilot died, but in the fight, forced the damaged U.S. aircraft to land on Hainan and endure a humiliating disassembly by PLA intelligence services. This is likely a foretaste of the sensitivity China will accord U.S. or other naval forces that seek to monitor China's nuclear naval operations -- aimed in large part at the U.S.
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While conflict with China over this region need not be preordained, there is a clear need to request that Beijing explain the content and purpose of its new large naval base at Sanya. China's potential to base a large force of nuclear weapons so close to the region covered by ASEAN's 1996 nuclear-free-zone treaty would at a minimum appear inconsistent with Beijing's pledge to sign protocols to this treaty. Furthermore, the Philippines' lack of any credible air or naval forces to defend its contiguous sea lanes, upon which much of Asia's commerce depends, creates a dangerous power vacuum.
China's movement of nuclear and future large-scale conventional naval forces to Sanya may fill this vacuum, but the interests of Tokyo, Seoul, New Delhi, Canberra and Washington will also be engaged. China's buildup in Sanya is a clear illustration of the need for China to respond to calls by Japan, Australia and the U.S. for greater military transparency. The only other prudent alternative is for these countries to increase their cooperation to defend their interests in deterring nuclear threats and threats to maritime safety.