Vietnamese fishermen recently may have gotten a big surprise: an 11,000-ton submarine surfacing among their boats. The incident reportedly occurred in September but has only recently come to light via social media. The Chinese Navy Jin Class ballistic missile submarine was said to have been operating near the Paracel Islands. The islands, known as Xisha in Chinese, are in a strategic location in the South China Sea. They are controlled by China but also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan.
The Jin Class is the newest missile submarine in the Chinese arsenal. Six have been built and are already the backbone of China’s at-sea nuclear deterrent. The submarines are based near Sanya on the island of Hainan, about 190 miles northwest of the Paracel Islands.
Nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines can operate submerged for months at a time and stay hidden beneath the waves throughout their patrol. Surfacing next to another country’s vessel is unusual and suggests that something has gone wrong. Something serious enough to warrant sacrificing its main asset: stealth. This is not the type of submarine you would expect to be used to send a message.
Submarines and fishing vessels do not mix well. In 1984 a Soviet submarine became entangled in the nets of a Norwegian fishing trawler. After hours of trying to free itself the submarine had to surface, exposing its mission off the NATO country. The consequences can be far worse. In 1990 a British submarine drove through the nets of a small fishing boat off Scotland. All four crew died when their boat was dragged under.
So possibly the submarine had become entangled in a fishing net, or feared that it would be. Surfacing may have saved the lives of the fishermen, or the submariners. Ironically, the risks associated with fishing nets may be a factor in Chinese missile submarines patrolling the South China Sea instead of the more congested East China Sea and Yellow Sea.
Full details have yet to emerge. It is however a timely reminder of the strategic importance of the South China Sea.