China is preparing to arm its stealthiest submarines with nuclear missiles that could reach the U.S., cloaking its arsenal with the invisibility needed to retaliate in the event of an enemy strike.
Fifty years after China carried out its first nuclear test, patrols by the almost impossible-to-detect JIN class submarines armed with nuclear JL-2 ballistic missiles will give President Xi Jinping greater agility to respond to an attack.
The nuclear-powered subs will probably conduct initial patrols with the missiles by the end of this year, “giving China its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent,” according to an annual report to Congress submitted in November by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Deploying the vessels will burnish China’s prestige as Xi seeks to end what he calls the “cold war” mentality that resulted in U.S. dominance of Asia-Pacific security. Since coming to power, Xi has increased military spending with a focus on longer-range capacity, including plans to add to the country’s tally of a single aircraft carrier.
“For the first time in history, China’s nuclear arsenal will be invulnerable to a first strike,” said independent strategist Nicolas Giacometti, who has written analysis for The Diplomat and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s the last leap toward China’s assured nuclear-retaliation capability.”
China’s nuclear-defense strategy is engineered to provide retaliation capability in the event of attack from nuclear powered nations as far away as the U.S. and also from Russia and India, according toFelix Chang, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
While China doesn’t view North Korea as a direct nuclear risk, officials are concerned about what might happen if North Korea threatened South Korea or Japan and the region became unstable, Chang said.
China’s nuclear-armed submarines will be “useful as a hedge to any potential nuclear threats, including those from North Korea, even if they are relatively small,” he said.