Analysis: Surprise appearance of alleged Chinese submarine in Taiwan exposes risk at sea

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The unexpected appearance of an alleged Chinese submarine in the Taiwan Straits this week highlighted the dangers posed by the frequent presence of military vessels on the narrow waterway, which analysts warn could ultimately trigger an unintended conflict.

Writing on the Covert Shores blog on Monday, submarine expert HI Sutton identified the vessel as a Chinese Type 94 ballistic missile submarine in a photo of the European open source satellite imagery service Sentinel-2.

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The submarine was reportedly seen crossing above the surface of the waters separating Taiwan from mainland China, where many analysts say the conflict is more likely to start from an accidental collision than a planned event — and the more warships in a confined space, the more chances there are for accidents to happen.

The reason for its supposed presence in the strait is unknown, but Sutton said the Chinese submarine – also known as the SSBN or “boomer” – was likely on a routine mission, possibly returning to a People’s Liberation Army Navy port ( ELP) in the Bohai Sea for repairs or maintenance.

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But other experts who saw the satellite image said the supposed presence of a boomer on the surface was baffling.

“An SSBN on the surface is virtually unheard of,” said Carl Schuster, a former US Navy captain and former director of operations for the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center. “This could suggest a hull or engineering problem that requires a large shipyard to investigate and repair.”

The Taiwan Strait is just 180 kilometers in diameter at its narrowest point. It has become one of the world’s leading military centers as China increasingly puts pressure on self-governing Taiwan, which Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to bring under Beijing’s control. In response, government supporters in Taipei, including the United States, have increased their military presence in the region.

This week, the commander of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, based in Japan, said more US aircraft carriers and partners are needed in the western Pacific.

Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, speaking aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson after large-scale naval exercises involving the US, Japan, Australia, Canada and Germany, said the aircraft carriers make a major deterrent statement.

“When we think about how we can fight, […] four aircraft carriers is a good number, but six, seven or eight would be better,” Thomas said, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, China – which already has the world’s largest navy in terms of number of ships – continues to produce new ships.

In November, its fourth Type 55 destroyer, the Anshan, joined the People’s Liberation Army (PLAN) Navy fleet and a fifth is expected to do so by the end of the year, Naval News revealed. The Type 55s are considered to be among the most modern and powerful surface combat ships in the world.

And with more ships comes more potential for an accident, as the US Congressional Research Service wrote last year in a report on China’s South and East Seas.

The intensification of US and Chinese military aircraft and ship operations in the South China Sea “could increase the risk of a miscalculation or inadvertent action that could cause an accident or lead to an incident that, in turn, could turn into a crisis or conflict,” the report said.

And in 2018, it nearly happened when a Chinese destroyer sailed dangerously close to a US guided-missile destroyer in the South China Sea – in what the US Navy described as an “aggressive maneuver”. The two ships came within 41 meters of each other, according to US Navy reports.

But Taiwan and its supporters are not standing still. Taipei last month began construction on the first of eight locally built submarines.

Australia, a Taiwan supporter and critical of Beijing’s growing military pressure in the region, said earlier this year it plans to build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

The potential for collisions at sea was brought into focus in October, when a US Navy submarine, the USS Connecticut, hit what the US Pacific Fleet said was an undersea mountain in the South China Sea. The Connecticut, a nuclear-powered fast attack submarine, returned to the surface towards the US naval base on the Pacific island of Guam after the incident. And in 2017, a wave of US Navy accidents in Asia raised similar concerns.

While there is no indication that the alleged Chinese submarine sighted on Monday was in an accident, “it’s an interesting mystery,” said Schuster, who also noted that the PLA could simply be showing its strength in the straits, as the US and its partner navies did recently.

A CNN contacted the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China for comment.

* Translated article. Read the original here.

Reference: CNN Brasil

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