A Chinese nuclear-powered submarine surfaced in the Taiwan Strait on Monday, a US defence analyst said, citing satellite imagery – a rare move that could be a message for Washington.
US Naval Institute columnist H.I. Sutton posted the image – taken by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2 satellite around 10am – which he said showed a ballistic missile submarine in the waterway, accompanied by another vessel.
“Although Sentinel-2 is low resolution, the wake patterns are characteristic of a submarine with typical rounded bow. The length best fits the Type 094 and the context aligns,” Sutton wrote on his personal website Covert Shores.
He said the submarine was heading north from the People’s Liberation Army base in Yulin, on the southern coast of Hainan in the South China Sea. He said it was likely a routine transit, noting that Chinese submarines returned north to a shipyard on the Bohai Sea for “repairs and overhaul”.
Military experts said it was unusual for a ballistic missile submarine to surface, especially an advanced PLA Navy vessel like the Type 094. The Jin-class submarines carry JL-2 ballistic missiles with a range of about 7,000km (4,350 miles) – meaning they could hit the northeast of the United States. The latest version of that submarine, the Type 094A, went into service in April and reportedly carries the more powerful JL-3 ballistic missiles with a range of over 10,000km.
“[Weapons carried] by the Type 094 were designed to target the US,” Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong noted, adding that “a surfaced transit doesn’t make sense – unless the PLA wants people to see it”.
Also on Monday, a US Navy P-8A anti-submarine patrol aircraft flew over the Taiwan Strait from the Misawa Air Base in Japan, according to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSPI), a Beijing-based think tank.
It said in a Weibo post that the US aircraft came as close as 30km to Fuzhou, a city in southeast China that is home to a PLA Air Force base from where so-called routine island encirclement patrols are carried out near Taiwan.
Beijing sees Taiwan as part of its territory and has not renounced the use of force to bring the self-ruled island under its control. Tensions have been escalating across the Taiwan Strait as Beijing steps up a campaign of military intimidation, as well as diplomatic pressure on Taipei. The US has meanwhile been developing closer ties with the democratic island.
Collin Koh, a maritime security analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the PLA submarine transit “could be construed, rightly or wrongly, as China sending deterrence signals to the US over Taiwan”, adding that it would have been closely monitored by the US military.
It was unusual for a strategic nuclear submarine to surface given that US aircraft and satellites monitor the region, according to Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
“It’s possible something happened to the Type 094, forcing it to take a surfaced voyage, which would be both safer and necessary,” Lu said.
Last month, the USS Connecticut was said to have made a week-long voyage on the surface to the US naval base in Guam after it was damaged when it hit a seamount in the South China Sea, injuring 11 sailors.
Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing, said the Taiwan Strait – which connects the East and South China seas – had complicated underwater terrain and active oceanic volcanoes and was “not friendly” for submarines. He said they tended to use the Bashi Channel instead when heading south to north, or transited the Miyako Strait when going north to south.
“But passing through the Taiwan Strait would save time for a submarine heading to the Bohai Shipyard for an upgrade or overhaul,” he said.