Last updated: October 28, 2013 5:31 am

China nuclear subs ‘gallop to depths of ocean’

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Xinhua, the official news agency, released photographs of what appeared to be Xia-class vessels – China’s first generation of nuclear-armed submarines©Xinhua

China has revealed that its first fleet of nuclear submarines has started sea patrols, in the latest sign of its military’s growing confidence which has raised concerns 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 the submarines 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. The US in June said Chinese warships had started patrolling its exclusive economic zone; the following month, Chinese destroyers passed through the 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 Pentagon last year said it would increase the proportion of US navy ships that are deployed to the Pacific as part of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia.

While the submarines displayed on Sunday were the older generation of nuclear vessels that are part of China’s northern fleet – and not the more advanced Jin-class 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.”

The People’s Liberation Army Daily also printed an unprecedented large spread on the submarines. Gary Li, a senior analyst at IHS Maritime, said the fact that China was showing off the submarines suggested they were “no longer considered an active vessel”, and would be replaced with the newer Jin-class submarines.

Mr Li added that the release of the photos was a “sign of increased attempts at creating a sense of transparency to the world”. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the photos, but said the US “welcomes increased transparency from China as it helps reduce regional tensions and promotes stability”.

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 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 in September. Japan next month plans a series of military exercises aimed at enhancing its ability to defend its control of the small chain of islands.

Additional reporting by Julie Zhu

demetri.sevastopulo@ft.com

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