One Sunday morning last December, China’s defense ministry summoned military attachés from several embassies to its monolithic Beijing headquarters.
To the foreigners’ surprise, the Chinese said that one of their nuclear-powered submarines would soon pass through the Strait of Malacca, a passage between Malaysia and Indonesia that carries much of world trade, say people briefed on the meeting.
Two days later, a Chinese attack sub—a so-called hunter-killer, designed to seek out and destroy enemy vessels—slipped through the strait above water and disappeared. It resurfaced near Sri Lanka and then in the Persian Gulf, say people familiar with its movements, before returning through the strait in February—the first known voyage of a Chinese sub to the Indian Ocean.
The message was clear: China had fulfilled its four-decade quest to join the elite club of countries with nuclear subs that can ply the high seas. The defense ministry summoned attachés again to disclose another Chinese deployment to the Indian Ocean in September—this time a diesel-powered sub, which stopped off in Sri Lanka.
China’s increasingly potent and active sub force represents the rising power’s most significant military challenge yet for the region. Its expanding undersea fleet not only bolsters China’s nuclear arsenal but also enhances the country’s capacity to enforce its territorial claims and thwart U.S. intervention.
China is expected to pass another milestone this year when it sets a different type of sub to sea—a “boomer,” carrying fully armed nuclear missiles for the first time—says the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, or ONI.
China is hardly hiding its new boomers. Tourists could clearly see three of them at a base opposite a resort recently in China’s Hainan province. On the beach, rented Jet Skis were accompanied by guides to make sure riders didn’t stray too close.
These boomers’ missiles have the range to hit Hawaii and Alaska from East Asia and the continental U.S. from the mid-Pacific, the ONI says.
“This is a trump card that makes our motherland proud and our adversaries terrified,” China’s navy chief, Adm. Wu Shengli, wrote of the country’s missile-sub fleet in a Communist Party magazine in December. “It is a strategic force symbolizing great-power status and supporting national security.”
To naval commanders from other countries, the Chinese nuclear sub’s nonstop Indian Ocean voyage was especially striking, proving that it has the endurance to reach the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s headquarters in Hawaii.
“They were very clear with respect to messaging,” says Vice Adm. Robert Thomas, a former submariner who commands the U.S. Seventh Fleet, “to say that, ‘We’re a professional navy, we’re a professional submarine force, and we’re global. We’re no longer just a coastal-water submarine force.’ ”