China has deployed three nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines to a naval base in the South China Sea, according to a recent photo of the vessels that appeared on the Internet.
The three Type 094 missile submarines were photographed at the Yalong Bay naval base on Hainan Island, located at the northern end of the South China Sea.
The submarines appear to be part of China’s plan to begin the first regular sea patrols of nuclear missile submarines.
Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, voiced concerns about Chinese missile submarines in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee in March.
"China’s advance in submarine capabilities is significant," Locklear said. "They possess a large and increasingly capable submarine force. China continues the production of ballistic missile submarines. … This will give China its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent, probably before the end of 2014."
Disclosure of the strategic submarine deployment comes as China sharply increased tensions over the weekend after one of its naval vessels rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in disputed waters claimed by both countries in the region.
Meanwhile, China on Tuesday called recent Japanese military aircraft incursions during joint Chinese-Russian war games in the East China Sea both dangerous and provocative, further escalating tensions between Beijing and Tokyo.
The photograph of the three missile submarines is the latest example of state-controlled media signaling new strategic nuclear capabilities by China.
The submarines, also called the Jin-class, are equipped with 12 multiple-warhead JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missiles that have a range of up to 4,900 miles.
Meanwhile, one of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered attack submarines based in Guam last week deployed for missions in the Asia Pacific and likely will conduct surveillance of China’s submarine forces in the region.
The submarine was monitoring a large Chinese-Russian joint naval exercise in the northern East China Sea that ended this week.
The Air Force also has begun long-range Global Hawk drone flights over Asia as part of a summer deployment of two of the unmanned surveillance aircraft to Japan.
On Tuesday, a Chinese general called the intrusion into military exercises by Japanese warplanes "dangerous" and "provocative."
"Japan unilaterally stirred up the military jets' encounter over the East China Sea," Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, told Xinhua, referring to the Japanese jets' confrontation by Chinese jets.
The jets flew in the unilaterally declared Chinese air defense identification zone that Tokyo, Washington and other Asia states do not recognize.
The incident occurred as Chinese and Russian warships were engaged in naval maneuvers.
"Japan's move, like its decision to purchase the Diaoyu [Senkaku] Islands in 2012 so as to change the status quo, is very dangerous and provocative," Sun said
The encounter between Japanese and Chinese jet fighters took place May 24 over open waters as the Japanese sought to monitor the military exercises.
The Vietnamese fishing boat sank Monday after colliding with a Chinese patrol vessel near the disputed Paracel Islands, in the South China Sea, where China raised tensions by beginning undersea oil drilling.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters the vessel sinking is troubling.
"We remain concerned about dangerous conduct and intimidation by vessels operating in this area by the Chinese," she said. "We continue to call on all parties to exercise restraint and take steps to lower the tensions and conduct themselves in a safe and, of course, professional manner."
Relations between Hanoi and Beijing remain tense over the maritime dispute. Protests were held recently in communist Vietnam against communist China.
There have been unconfirmed reports that Chinese military forces were massing near the Chinese border with Vietnam. The two nations fought a brief conflict early 1979, after Chinese forces invaded and captured several cities before retreating.
Regarding the missile submarines, Andrei Pinkov, a military analyst with Kanwa Defense who reported on the submarines May 1, said the three submarines at Hainan are a sign Beijing is speeding up the pace of deployments. Also, a review of the photo indicates that one of the three submarines could be a more advanced missile submarine called the Type 096, based on an analysis of the length of missile submarines, he stated in his journal Kanwa Defense Review.
The deployment is "intended to give the new SSBN better protection in the deep waters of the South China Sea," Pinkov stated, using the military acronym for ballistic missile submarine.
Hans M. Kristensen, an analyst with the Federation of American Scientists, said China now has three or four Type-094s.
China over the past decade has built an extensive naval infrastructure for its underwater forces, including upgraded naval bases, submarine hull demagnetization facilities, underground facilities and high-bay buildings for missile storage and handling, and covered tunnels and railways to conceal the activities from prying eyes in the sky.
It is not known if the Chinese will deploy actual nuclear warheads with the submarines or continue the past Chinese practice of keeping warheads in central storage sites for deployment in a crisis.
"The South Sea Fleet naval facilities on Hainan Island are under significant expansion," Kristensen stated in a recent blog post. "The nuclear submarine base at Longpo has been upgraded to serve as the first nuclear submarine base in the South China Sea."
The base also includes a submarine tunnel that is part of an underwater complex of nuclear facilities on Hainan.
The Washington Free Beacon first reported in July that China would begin the first sea patrols of the Type 094 some time this year.
China conducted a test flight of the JL-2 missile, the system to be deployed on the Type 094, in August 2012.
A report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center last year stated that the JL-2 "will, for the first time, allow Chinese SSBNs to target portions of the United States from operating areas located near the Chinese coast."
China’s jingoistic Global Times on Oct. 28 published an unprecedented report that revealed a nuclear missile strike on the western United States with JL-2 missiles could kill up to 12 million Americans.
The Obama administration and senior Navy officials were silent regarding the nuclear attack threat, which included graphics showing nuclear plumes and collateral damage caused by radiation.
The congressional U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission stated in a report several years ago that China is planning to deploy an anti-satellite missile on its missile submarines.
Anti-satellite missiles are key elements of China’s anti-access, area denial capabilities designed to drive the U.S. Navy out of Asia.
China only recently began publicizing its nuclear missile submarine forces, mainly through semi-official disclosures on so-called military enthusiast websites.