Risky Chinese intercepts of US surveillance planes over the South China Sea, which Washington assailed as dangerous, are likely to continue, even intensify, amid the military’s resolve to shield its expanding ballistic missile submarine fleet, Reuters reported on Thursday, citing Chinese military experts.
An incident where a Chinese fighter buzzed a US anti-submarine and reconnaissance plane on Aug. 19, at one point flying 9 meters (30 feet) from the aircraft’s wing tips, drew criticism from Pentagon, which described it as “very, very close and very dangerous”.
Beijing dismissed the criticism as groundless and said the pilot had kept a safe distance.
Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong from the National Defense University in Beijing, was even more blunt. “We didn’t give them enough pressure [before],” Zhang told the state-owned Global Times newspaper. “A knife at the throat is the only deterrence. From now on, we must fly even closer to US surveillance aircraft.”
Experts said such intercepts could represent a directive from above rather than the actions of rogue pilots, according to the news agency.
Among the submarines using the base are large Jin-class vessels capable of carrying nuclear-armed ballistic missiles that are expected to form a key plank in China’s nuclear deterrence strategy.
The precise operational readiness of China’s three or four Jin-class vessels, including their missile launching capabilities, is not publicly known, Reuters said, citing military analysts.
“Long-term, these submarines are China’s only hope for a meaningful deterrence … they are everything to China,” said Zhang Baohui, a mainland security specialist at Lingnan University and author of a forthcoming book on Beijing’s nuclear strategy and forces.
The submarines are very important to China’s nuclear deterrent because of Beijing’s policy, dating back to the 1960s, of not deploying nuclear weapons unless attacked with them first, the report quoted Zhang Baohui as saying.
This means China’s larger land-based missiles are considered vulnerable to a first strike if Beijing fulfills its “no first strike” pledge during a conflict.
Having submarines able to travel far into the Pacific Ocean undetected with missiles that can reach the United States is therefore the country’s “only hope of a credible nuclear deterrent, as it secures second strike capability”, Zhang told Reuters.
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