Analysts, military observers and commentators on social media have been abuzz since a satellite photo emerged showing a Chinese nuclear submarine entering an underwater base on the southernmost island of Hainan in the South China Sea.
The rare satellite image, acquired on August 19 by Planet Labs and published on social media by an American pro-government channel, Radio Free Asia, shows a Chinese Type 093 nuclear attack submarine belonging to the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) near the important Yulin naval base.
This is also arousing interest because no other submarines are visible in the image of the strategic base. The other docks in the image are completely empty, raising questions among online users about where China's nuclear-powered ships might be.
Here is one of the few satellite photos that show full activity, and contrast greatly with this "apparent calm". It's about 3 years ago.
The Yulin naval base on Hainan Island is a crucial strategic site. For a myriad of reasons. The base is located about 300 miles (nearly 500 kilometers) southwest of Hong Kong and is home to China's nuclear ballistic missile submarine fleet, critical to China's strike capabilities.
The base is also located on the northern border of the disputed South China Sea, which has been a source of friction with neighboring Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and the US.
Chinese nuclear submarine: China moves (underwater)
Over the years, China has become richer and more powerful militarily. And this has made it more assertive in establishing and defending its sovereignty in the strategic South China Sea. This has obviously attracted controversial reactions from the East Asian giant's regional and geopolitical rivals.
It is given the increasingly intense friction between Washington and Beijing there is more and more attention to these “disputed” areas. It happened recently too. When, that is, a P-8 maritime patrol plane flew over the South China Sea last week.
This is the image taken yesterday:
Military analysts don't seem surprised
The Chinese People's Liberation Army is known for hiding many of its strategic assets underground. A natural attitude for an army with historical roots that often relied on these tactics. Among others, the war tunnels built during the 1937-1945 war against Japanese occupation are famous.
The country's long martial history is also rich in underground military facilities.
China is also known for having a so-called “Underground Great Wall”. A labyrinthine network of tunnels intended to hide, mobilize and deploy intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Any move to hide a Chinese nuclear submarine from rivals' surveillance systems by hiding them in underground tunnels deprives potential adversaries from assessing its military strength.
“There is no evidence of (the submarine's) combat readiness, operational response times and availability.” He stated this to CNN Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the Joint Intelligence Center of US Pacific Command.
“The tunnels negate the ability to determine the status of China's military preparations. Fundamental knowledge to evaluate China's intentions and plans”.