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China Flashes Sea Based Deterrence in SCS?

Type 094 PLAN Nuclear Submarine. Source

A report by Xinhua featured in China Military Online indicates that Xi Jinping, chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC), signed an order to commend two outstanding military units and two individuals. One of the units is the office of the CMC equipment development department and the second named as, “a unit of Troop 92730 of the People's Liberation Army (PLA)” given first-class merit citations.

South China Morning Post [SCMP]in a report by Minnie Chan quotes a former PLA instructor to state that the unit could be related to the country’s nuclear technology.

“We don’t know what kind of job the Sanya-based troop was honoured for, but previous official information suggests that it might be some achievements related to the country’s nuclear submarine technology,” SCMP quotes Song Zhongping, a former PLA instructor.

“The recent commendations indicate Beijing’s emphasis on strategic deterrence, with its nuclear capability needing to be enhanced in both quality and quantity,” he adds as per the SCMP.

It is possible that Xi has awarded the PLA nuclear submarine unit for conduct of strategic deterrence patrols in the South China Sea and beyond.

The US DOD stated in its 2022 report states that China ‘likely began near-continuous at-sea deterrence patrols’ in 2021.

SIPRI interprets this as conduct of intermittent patrols with nuclear weapons onboard though with a word of caution as it would be “a significant change to the country’s long-held practice of keeping nuclear warheads in central storage in peacetime,” as per SIPRI.

Presently China has deployed six Type 094 submarines which carry up to 12 three-stage, solid-fuelled Julang (JL) submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which exist in two types: the JL-2 (CSS-N-14) and the JL-3 (CSS-N-20).

China has also begun construction of its next-generation SSBN, the Type 096 as per SIPRI with a larger hull and quieter version of Type 094 and potentially equipped with more missile-launch tubes.

If the award to equipment development department is corelated to that of the PLAN nuclear submarine unit there is a possibility to presume links with deployment of nuclear weapons on the sub – with or without mated warheads and assured communication links.

However the same could be an unlinked achievement for which the unit was rewarded thus there is a degree of uncertainty which needs confirmation.

Related Trends in China’s Nuclear Capability Development and posture

In its annual report SIPRI has estimated that China has increased the number of warheads from 350 to 410 in the last one year and expects progressive expansion of the nuclear warheads to match the United States.

This comes even as Chinese government’s declared aim is to maintain minimum nuclear deterrent to safeguard national security, with the goal of ‘deterring other countries from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against China’. Nevertheless minimum is reasonably vague and undefined with the threshold expected to rise as China sees the nuclear competition with the vastly superior arsenal of the United States.

Despite continuing increase in the sophistication and size of China’s nuclear arsenal, there is no official public evidence that the Chinese government has deviated from its long-standing core nuclear policies, including its NFU policy as per the SIPRI.

The United States Department of Defence has in its 2022 report assessed that China is implementing an ‘early warning counterstrike’ strategy—akin to a ‘launch-on-warning’ (LOW) posture or a modified NFU. This needs some confirmation and maybe presumptuous.

Signalling the United States?

Tensions between the United States and China have spiked in the past year or so particularly related to Taiwan after the visit of US House Speaker Ms Nancy Pelosi to Taipei in 2022. Frequent intrusions by the PLA Air Force in Taiwan’s air defence zone and PLA Navy in the Taiwan Straits are evident. China has also been averse to US Freedom of Navigation Operations through these waters.

China’s aggressive wolf warrior diplomacy has flagged that the country will pursue the path of unification with Taiwan leaving the military option deliberately vague.

Expansion of the United States strategic partnership in the region and the military activity of US IndoPacom have also riled China of late.

The nuclear submarine patrol or the upgradation of sea based deterrence which are indicators of the reason for the award may be a signal to the United States of the limits to which China may go in case pushed hard on Taiwan.

For an US interpretation of the development we will have to await the Pentagon Annual report on PLA capabilities.

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