WASHINGTON (AFP) — China's new underground nuclear submarine base close to vital sea lanes in Southeast Asia has raised US concerns, with experts calling for a shoring up of alliances in the region to check Beijing's growing military clout.
The base's existence on the southern tip of Hainan Island was confirmed for the first time by high resolution satellite images, according to Jane's Intelligence Review, a respected defence periodical, this month.
It could hold up to 20 submarines, including a new type of nuclear ballistic missile submarine, and future Chinese aircraft carrier battle groups, posing a challenge to longstanding US military dominance in Asia.
China should not pursue such "high-end military options," warned Admiral Timothy Keating, the top commander of US forces in Asia, in an interview with the Voice of America last week.
He underlined America's "firm intention" not to abandon its dominating military role in the Pacific and told Beijing it would face "sure defeat" if it took on the United States militarily.
Worried mostly about Taiwan's security, Washington has often questioned China's military expansion on the back of rapid economic growth.
But American military experts attending a forum on China's naval expansion in Washington Monday said the nuclear submarine base underscored Beijing's interest in projecting power beyond the Taiwan Strait.
"The most important thing about the Hainan development is that if you look at the map, there is really nowhere China could go except south," said Arthur Waldron, an expert at the University of Pennsylvania, referring to the South China Sea and critical sea lanes, including the Strait of Malacca straddling Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
"This Hainan facility is going to raise questions in the minds of all of the neighbours because this is a fixed facility and cannot be removed," Waldron said. "My own sense is that it is going to make ripples and waves."
He said Washington should "tighten" its alliances in Asia to check China's growing military might and develop "interoperability" capabilities among allies such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and Singapore, as well as Indonesia and Malaysia.
James Lyons, an ex-commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said the United States needed to reestablish high-level military ties with the Philippines as part of efforts to enhance US deterrence in the wake of China's naval expansion.
He said "operational tactics" used against the former Soviet Union during the Cold War should be applied against China.
He suggested US leasing a squadron of F-16 fighter jets and navy vessels to the Philippines, where Washington once had naval and air bases, as part of the deterrence strategy.
"We don't need a permanent base but we need access," Lyons said, suggesting also that Japan play a more "meaningful" role in protecting critical sea lanes in the region.
"Again the Soviets, we raised that deterrence equation and we won the war without firing a shot basically ... there is no cheap way out and we have to improve our posture in the Western Pacific along with our allies," he said.
Richard Fisher, an expert of China military affairs at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, a US think tank, expected US confrontation with China as Beijing modernized its nuclear ballistic missile submarines, referred to in military jargon as SSBNs.
"Absent a higher military diplomatic relationship with the Chinese, I foresee a period of growing confrontation in the South China Sea," he said.
"If they are going to be maintaining SSBN patrols within guarded areas of the South China Sea, the US has no choice but to maintain contacts or to monitor these SSBNs so as to be able to take them out in the event they come to threaten the US -- just as we did against Soviet SSBNs during the Cold War," he said.
The Hainan facility, he said, was a timely replacement for Beijing's first nuclear ballistic missile submarine base at the Bohai Gulf north of the country, which he added was too shallow to support nuclear deterrent patrols.
The Chinese would not allow the American navy to enter the air space and waters around the Hainan base uncontested, Fisher said.
"There is a very strong likelihood that there would be incidents at sea and that ships and aircraft and their crew members could be lost," he said.
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