China has said its first fleet of nuclear submarines has started sea patrols, in the latest sign of the growing confidence of the country’s military that has raised tensions in the region.
Xinhua, the official news agency, released photographs of what appeared to be Xia-class vessels – China’s first generation of nuclear-armed submarines, which are several decades old – saying they were being “declassified” for the first time. It said they would “gallop to the depths of the ocean, serving as mysterious forces igniting the sound of thunder in the deep sea”, and be an “assassin’s mace that would make adversaries tremble”.
The Chinese navy has in recent years increased in assertiveness as it has enhanced its capabilities. In June, the US revealed that Chinese warships had started patrolling its exclusive economic zone; the following month, Chinese destroyers passed throughthe strait between Russia and northern Japan for the first time.
In a bid to counter the growing power of the Chinese military in the region, the US last year said it would increase the proportion of American navy ships that are deployed to the Pacific as part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia.
While the submarines appeared to be the older generation of nuclear-capable vessels that are part of China’s northern fleet – and not the more advancedJin-class that are based at the southern Chinese island of Hainan – the display in the domestic media nonetheless reflects the Chinese military’s growing confidence.
“It is still the first time that the Xia class has been discussed in such detail in China’s state-run media,” said Taylor Fravel, an expert on Chinese security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. “As China’s military modernisation continues to advance, the PLA has become more willing to discuss its capabilities.”
Paul Haenle, former White House National Security Council China director and now director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center think-tank in Beijing, said China had three operational Jin-class vessels with another two under construction.
In recent years, the People’s Liberation Army Navy has become increasingly active in the Pacific, particularly in staking Chinese claims to disputed maritime territory in the South China Sea.
Chinese ships and aircraft have also become more aggressive in challenging Japanese control of the Senkaku Islands – which China calls the Diaoyu – in the East China Sea. Japan has administered the uninhabited group for decades, but China and Taiwan both claim sovereignty.
Japan scrambled fighter jets on Sunday for a third consecutive day in response to Chinese military flights in international airspace over Okinawa, as relations remain tense between the Asian powers. Tensions have mounted since the central Japanese government last year bought some of the Senkaku Islands from their private owner.
The Japanese response came as Shinzo Abe, prime minister, on Sunday told Japanese troops that Tokyo would not tolerate the use of force to change the region’s status quo, seen by observers as an implicit criticism of Beijing’s efforts to expand its maritime control in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
The re-election of Mr Abe as prime minister has also strained relations with Beijing, which regards him as an ultra nationalist. His Liberal Democratic Party’s election manifesto last year contained a pledge to consider stationing Japanese government officials on the Senkaku which would be strongly opposed by China.
China has also criticised recent Japanese plans to shoot down foreign drones that enter its airspace, which Tokyo unveiled after a Chinese unmanned aircraft approached the Senkaku Islands last month. Japan next month plans a series of military exercises aimed at enhancing its ability to defend its control of the small chain of islands.
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