China’s latest submarine was unveiled with little fanfare at a shipyard in Wuhan last month. Grainy online photos gave little away, but defence analysts are wondering: have the Chinese finally developed stealth technology?
The modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – a process that has ploughed forwards over the past two decades – has been largely geared around the potential need, one day, to conquer Taiwan. Submarines would play a vital part in such an adventure. The last time China looked like it might try to clobber the island, in the mid-1990s, all it took to blunt the Chinese threat was for the US to park two aircraft carriers in the Taiwan Strait. Back then, China had nothing in its locker that could contend with these two ships and their entourage of air and sea forces. The PLA learned from this humbling encounter, and ever since has been developing military systems – submarines among them – that could take on the US’s floating fortresses.
It’s looking increasingly as if they are close to achieving their goal. In 2006, a Chinese submarine freaked out the US Navy by surfacing undetected within firing range of a US aircraft carrier that was on exercise in the Pacific. There was no suggestion of the Chinese sub attacking, but it was a powerful demonstration of China’s much-improved naval capabilities.
This new submarine, analysts are suggesting, would find it even easier to sneak up on US carriers. No official information about the boat is available – the PLA doesn’t do candour – besides a few snaps that have appeared online; so experts have been following the usual trail of crumbs that is the staple of Chinese military analysis. The upshot is that the boat appears to be a new, stealthy design capable of creeping up noiselessly on enemy shipping – though the experts approached by Monocle stressed that no-one could be sure just from the photos. However, the fact that one of China’s leading naval scientists has just been given an award for advances made in stealth technology seems to provide an important clue.
With Beijing currently in the process of restoring military ties with the US, the vessel has surfaced at a particularly salient time. China broke off military links with Washington in January, piqued by its continuing arms sales to Taiwan. The resumption of talks would reopen an important channel through which the US might seek assurances about the potentially stealthy sub. “The concern is that I can’t sit down and talk to them,” complained Admiral Mike Mullen, America’s top soldier, at a press briefing last week when asked about Chinese military development.
Nonetheless, for the US Navy – for which the loss of a carrier is the ultimate nightmare – the stealth sub’s appearance is a worrying development. The protection of Taiwan may not be the cakewalk of 15 years ago. China’s quiet sub is certainly making a very loud argument for America to stay away.