As PLA and US bolster naval forces, fear of South China Sea nuclear submarine collision is building

·4-min read

The risk of a nuclear submarine collision in the South China Sea is growing as the PLA and US navies step up deployment in the contested waters, a Chinese researcher has warned.

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the Aukus deal could add to that risk, although Australia’s nuclear submarine fleet – a key part of the pact with the US and Britain – was still decades away.

Speaking at an international relations forum in Beijing on Wednesday, Wu also said the current mechanism for crisis management “might not be effective in critical moments”. He was referring to non-binding documents signed by China and the US in 2014 on the rules of behaviour for air and maritime encounters.

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Wu recalled a near miss in 2018, when a Luyang-class Chinese destroyer sailed within just 41 metres (134 feet) of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Decatur, and they almost collided in Gaven Reef in the South China Sea.

“Sailing within 41 metres is very dangerous. It is not that we do not have rules, but that the rules are not followed through in [a] critical moment. This is where the risk lies,” Wu said at the forum, hosted by the institute. “If the same scenario happened to two nuclear submarines, this would become a huge disaster.”

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The risk was imminent, Wu said, as both China and the US were both developing nuclear submarines and sending them to the South China Sea. The deal to build the Australian fleet, aided by the US and Britain, could result in more of the advanced navy vessels in waters heavily contested by China and Southeast Asian nations – some of which are US allies.

“The number of nuclear [submarines] in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait will increase. [Are] there some common rules for such vessels to comply with?” Wu said.

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. Photo: Handout
Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies. Photo: Handout

The South China Sea Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank, said earlier that the US had deployed B-52H and B-1B bombers over the disputed waters 14 times this year, along with 11 nuclear submarines including the USS Connecticut, which was damaged in an incident last month.

A new Pentagon report released on Thursday said China’s navy had 355 ships and submarines by 2020. It said the Chinese navy had placed a high priority on modernising its submarine forces, operating six nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs), six nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), and 46 diesel-powered attack submarines (SSs).

The PLA Navy is expected to operate Type 094 and Type 096 SSBNs concurrently and could have up to eight SSBNs by 2030, the report said.

“Establishing a risk-control mechanism with the United States is very urgent. Conflicts in the military and security fields are completely different from those in the economic and trade fields,” Wu said.

“China and the US are both nuclear powers. The frequent sea and air activities that go along with Chinese and US military deployment will create more risk of conflict if there’s no control mechanism.”

US military deployment in the Taiwan Strait would also pose a risk to the South China Sea, as US vessels were passing through the Taiwan Strait before entering the disputed waters, Wu added.

China and Southeast Asian nations are discussing a code of conduct in the South China Sea, which Wu said was making progress with 19 rounds of high-level negotiation and 32 rounds of working-level talks so far.

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There was cooperation between the Chinese and US militaries, but other measures to build trust between the two powers were lacking, Wu added.

“China will definitely seek to maintain its maritime strategic advantage in the aftermath of the Aukus alliance, and arms races are expected,” he said.

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