Type 094 Jin-class SSBN

Over at Battleland, Time magazine quotes a retired MSDF admiral as saying that China needs the South China Sea to hide nukes.

Sumihiko Kawamura, deputy director of the conservative Okazaki Institute in Tokyo, says China has claimed virtually all of the South China Sea and is developing aircraft carriers and stealth fighter planes largely to secure a haven for ballistic missile submarines.

This would allow China to strike back if the US or other opponent were to destroy China’s land-based missiles in a first strike. China’s shallow coastal waters currently leave little room for nuclear submarines to hide.

“You cannot understand China’s maritime policy without considering the nuclear dimension,” says Kawamura, a retired admiral in Japan’s maritime self-defense forces – aka, the Japanese Navy.

“China wants to become a military superpower. To do that, it has to acquire a second-strike capability, and they are eager to grow that capability. That is the reason they want to control all of the South China Sea, “says Kawamura. (Link)

China is definitely interested in constructing a credible nuclear deterrent, if not a triad of land, air, and sea-based nuclear weapons, then at least a land and sea “biad” (?). China’s ballistic missile submarines have to go somewhere. The Yellow Sea would be an attractive option were it not for American bases in South Korea. Patrolling in the Western Pacific, like the Philippine Sea, means running a gauntlet of potential adversaries.

Stashing nuclear weapons at sea for the counter value mission is something the United States and Russia have been doing for decades. The Russians in particular designated the Barents Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk as bastions for their ballistic missile submarines, protected areas near home where their nuclear deterrent could patrol safely and guarantee a second-strike capability.

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That having been said, the South China Sea is far from an ideal place for China’s nuclear subs to conduct patrols. China is crowded by its neighbors. Although close to China, the South China Sea is also close to, well, virtually everyone in East/Southeast Asia. It has been an American stomping ground for decades, and Japan alone fields more than three dozen anti-submarine warfare destroyers.

When one combines the vast potential natural resources of the South China Sea with its ability to provide China with a nuclear bastion, one begins to realize why China was willing to remove this region from the global commons. This despite the fact that claiming it  has undone more than a decade of diplomacy. It’s indeed possible that someone has made the valuation that the South China Sea is more useful to China than the countries it stands to alienate.

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A contributor and editor at the blog War Is Boring, Kyle Mizokami started Japan Security Watch in 2010 to further understand Japan's defenses and security policy.
Kyle Mizokami has 596 post(s) on Japan Security Watch