Beneath the surface of the South China Sea off the tropical Chinese resort island of Hainan, an underwater tunnel guides submarines into a lair reminiscent of a James Bond spy movie.
From this pen the subs can venture in and out of the contested South China Sea hidden from the prying eyes of reconnaissance planes deployed by the U.S. Navy, which for the past half century has enjoyed almost unfettered access to the waters, say military watchers who cite satellite images of the area.
The fleet of diesel and nuclear-powered submarines reflects President Xi Jinping’s efforts to ensure the security of sea lanes vital for feeding the economic growth on which the nation’s stability rests. It’s also provoked discomfort among neighbors bruised by China’s approach to territorial disputes.
China’s Pain Points
As countries from India to Australia and Vietnam spend tens of billions upgrading their underwater fleets, cluttering the sea as well as the sky with the reconnaissance craft that follow, the risk is that a clash that previously might have been limited to coast guard and fishing boats spills into military conflict.
“Countries are saying: we need to put into place some kind of credible force that puts doubt into the mind of a Chinese admiral,” said Bill Hayton, author of “The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia.” “They are clearly thinking about that because otherwise why are they buying submarines and anti-ship missiles?”
Defense spending in Asia and Oceania rose 3.6 percent to $407 billion in 2013, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, making it the only region where spending increased every year since SIPRI began collecting the data in 1988. That was led by a 7.4 percent rise in China’s spending, with a 5 percent increase for Southeast Asia.