An enormous Chinese nuclear submarine has been involved in an “embarrassing” incident in the South China Sea.
The 11,000-tonne Type 094 Jin Class sub emerged suddenly among a Vietnamese fishing fleet operating off the Paracel Islands, around 300km from its home base at Sanya on the Chinese island of Hainan.
It is a highly unusual event that has sparked speculation over whether it was a deliberate act of intimidation or an accident.
The ballistic-missile carrying nuclear submarine is designed to remain underwater for months on end without detection, and deter any surprise attacks.
International submarine warfare analyst HI Sutton said using a submarine such as this to “send a message” to Vietnam goes against all expectations.
“Surfacing next to another country’s vessel is unusual and suggests that something has gone wrong,” he said.
“Something serious enough to warrant sacrificing its main asset – stealth.”
The sub’s surfacing comes at a time when Beijing is looking to tighten its grip on the South China Sea through its enforcement of what it calls the “Nine-Dash Line”.
This is a string of illegally-made artificial island fortresses built by China and entirely surrounding the waters between it and Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Entry through the straights between the islands is closely monitored by the Chinese military, and nuclear subs can hide in the depths waiting for approaching ships.
All this makes the Vietnamese shipping boat incident more bizarre.
Sutton went on: “The Jin Class in the newest missile submarine in the Chinese arsenal. Six have already been built and are already the backbone of China’s at-sea nuclear deterrent.”
The incident happened last month but only came to light on Thursday.
“Possibly the submarine had become entangled in a fishing net, or feared that it would be,” Sutton said.
“Surfacing may have saved the lives of the fishermen or the submariners.”
In recent months, there has been an upsurge in military activity in the South China Sea.
Last month, China launched a 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship capable of carrying up to 30 attack helicopters.