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Terrorism & Security

Global scrutiny follows reports of Chinese nuclear base

The naval buildup on Hainan appears to be part of Beijing's long-range plan to increase its military presence, but the new base has alarmed neighboring countries and the US.

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The Times of India reports that the extent of the new Chinese base has "jolted the Indian defence establishment." India has nuclear weapons, too, but has yet to develop its own nuclear-armed submarines, a deficiency that "has long troubled defence planners."

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While an adversary can take out missile silos and airbases in pre-emptive strikes, it's difficult to target nuclear submarines which can remain underwater for prolonged periods.
The sheer importance of the underwater nuclear deterrent can be gauged from the fact that even the US and Russia will ensure that two-thirds of the strategic warheads they eventually retain, under arms reduction agreements, will be in the shape of SLBMs [submarine-launched ballistic missiles].

Writing in the Federation of American Scientists' Strategic Security Blog, Hans Kristensen strikes a skeptical note. He says that the Chinese have very little experience in operating ballistic missile submarines, so it's not clear yet how strategically significant the new base will be. He suggested that the US could easily monitor Chinese movements from the base, which is near deep water.

The U.S. navy has several decades of experience in trailing Soviet SSBNs [nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic nuclear missiles] in the open oceans; shallow waters are much more challenging. And the South China Sea is a busy area for U.S. attack submarines, which have unconstrained access to the waters off Hainan Island. And I'd be surprised if there were not a U.S. "shadow" following the Jin-class SSBN when it arrived at Hainan Island.

The Daily Telegraph quoted a leading arms control expert in saying that China was giving its nuclear forces a major overhaul.

Bates Gill, head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri), said that [China] was developing more flexible delivery systems, including from submarines, as well as the capacity to use multiple warheads.
"Among the major nuclear powers China stands out in its effort to modernise, expand and improve its nuclear weapons capability," he said in Beijing today.
"We see some very interesting and quite dramatic changes in the way its nuclear deterrent operates."

But the Telegraph says China's arsenal is still the smallest of the five big powers – also including US, Russia, Britain, and France – at only 100 to 200 warheads.

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