Beijing’s Strategy of Sea Denial

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 23

In October 1994, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was operating with its battle group in the Yellow Sea when it detected an underwater contact. Battle group aircraft began tracking the contact, which turned out to be a Chinese Han-class nuclear powered attack submarine (SSN) returning to its homeport in northern China [1]. Neither the captain of the submarine nor, apparently, higher authorities ashore knew how to respond to the situation; what would have been an accepted practice between U.S. and Soviet naval forces during the Cold War was completely unfamiliar to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Almost precisely 12 years later, the USS Kitty Hawk was again at sea when a Chinese Song-class diesel-electric submarine that had been shadowing the carrier surfaced approximately five miles away, where it was spotted by one of the carrier’s aircraft (AP, November 14).

The difference in the two submarine encounters provides strong evidence of the maturation of the PLAN submarine force, an undertaking that was triggered by Washington’s response to the 1996 Taiwan Strait crisis. At the time, two U.S. carrier battle groups were deployed to the waters around Taiwan in response to Beijing’s coercive use of military pressure—ballistic missile tests and live-fire amphibious exercises—against the island. Forced to recognize just how inadequate the PLAN would be in the face of U.S. naval intervention, Chinese civilian and naval leaders reacted by pursuing a carefully chosen path to develop the capabilities necessary to challenge such an intervention: a submarine force capable of deterring, if not defeating a U.S. carrier battle group. Rather than attempt to match U.S. naval strength ship-for-ship, China opted to build a navy capable of achieving specific national security objectives, none of which is more important than ensuring that Taiwan does not achieve de jure independence.

PLAN strategists believe that aircraft carriers are both the strength and the weakness of the U.S. Navy, the “mainstay of the military power by which the United States maintains its worldwide presence” [2]. They recognize the firepower that a carrier is capable of wielding, but also understand that with just 11 deployable carriers, the United States cannot afford to lose even one to hostile action. Hence, in addition to its frequent anti-carrier exercises, China has focused on the development of submarines—the platform that it believes is the most effective measure to counter aircraft carriers [3]. During the past decade, Beijing has purchased new Kilo-class submarines from Russia, while also building five classes of new submarines. This decision is further animated by the understanding that while U.S. anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities—tactics, technology and equipment—had become extremely proficient at finding and tracking Soviet submarines, by the end of the Cold War, these capabilities were allowed to atrophy in the absence of an opposing submarine force. This understandable yet regrettable decline has been halted, though recovery of the previous level of ASW capabilities, especially for carriers, continues to be seriously hampered by the number of shrinking submarines, ASW ships and aircraft, as well as by the conflicting missions conducted for the global war on terrorism.

Chinese naval commanders hope to take advantage of the perceived weakness of U.S. aircraft carriers; their submarines are beginning to deploy further from China’s coast, undertaking survey, reconnaissance and anti-carrier missions much closer to U.S. and Japanese naval forces than ever before. These leaders also recognize that any large-scale Chinese military action against Taiwan would likely draw a U.S. military response that would center on the deployment of aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. The PLAN’s primary mission in such a situation would be that of “sea denial” through an “active offshore defense.” Such a strategy calls for submarines to be deployed and maintained on station in the East China Sea so as to delay, or prevent, the carriers’ advance. U.S. naval commanders, wary of the threat posed by the submarines, would be forced to conduct time-intensive ASW operations to ensure the safe transit of their ships into the operating areas around Taiwan and the safe operation of their ships once on station.

The PLAN is divided into the North Sea, East Sea and South Sea fleets, and all have been assigned the newer submarines. The nuclear powered submarines are all assigned to the North Sea Fleet, however, probably reflecting Beijing’s intention to have these boats—its most capable and far ranging—able to quickly deploy into the East China Sea and assume station against a potential U.S. aircraft carrier intrusion. The five nuclear powered Han-class submarines operated by the PLAN are old and noisy; they will probably be decommissioned on a one-for-one basis as the newly constructed Shang-class SSNs become operational. Two of these new submarines are presently in the water and others are under construction. These and China’s other new submarines will be armed with state-of-the-art torpedoes acquired from Russia and anti-ship cruise missiles that are launched from the submerged position. These Russian-designed SS-N-27B “Sizzler” missiles are armed with a 70-kilogram (kg) high explosive warhead and can reach a target 16 nautical miles away [4]. The missile flies near the surface of the ocean at subsonic speed until it nears its target, when it becomes supersonic and flies in an evasive flight path specifically designed to defeat the Aegis weapons systems that the aircraft carrier’s escorting ships are equipped [5].

This focus on surface ship attacks indicates that the PLAN does not plan to employ its new submarines as “sub killers,” tasked with locating and attacking U.S. or other opposing submarines, but instead intends to use its new submarine force to focus on U.S. surface ships in general and aircraft carriers in particular as their primary targets. This decision would also reflect China’s appreciation of the greater capabilities of U.S. Seawolf- and Virginia-class SSNs.

In addition to the two encounters noted above—the 1994 Han¬¬-class submarine encounter with the USS Kitty Hawk and the 2006 Song encounter with the USS Kitty Hawk—a third incident took place in November 2004. This occasion may be even more indicative of the PLAN submarine force’s newfound confidence and capability. In 2004, a Han-class submarine apparently cruised all the way to Guam, circumnavigated the island and then deliberately violated Japanese territorial waters and surfaced on its return voyage to China [6].

Were any of these events—1994, 2004, 2006—the result of deliberate action by China’s leaders or by the PLAN? The 1994 incident clearly was not, although Beijing’s scrambling of fighters to “defend” the submarine certainly demonstrated a lack of understanding about naval encounters on the high seas. The 2004 and 2006 incidents, however, may indeed have resulted from a deliberate Chinese decision to “send a message” to the United States and perhaps to Japan about the capability of PLAN submarines to track opposing surface ships. Indeed, Beijing may be using these encounters to send a signal to Washington, cautioning it against intervening in a Taiwan scenario.

Did one or more of these incidents create a dangerous situation for either PLAN or USN ships or submarines? No direct danger developed in any of these incidents; certainly, nothing akin to China’s physical harassment of the U.S. hydrographic survey ship, USNS Bowditch, in 2002 while the ship was steaming in international waters. In addition, none of these three incidents involving Chinese submarines resulted in the actual collision and loss of life that resulted from the Chinese fighter pilot’s collision with the U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft in international air space in March 2001.

The three submarine encounters, however, do emphasize the necessity for more progress in the U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) discussions, which began in 1995 and have been relatively unproductive since. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Incidents at Sea (IncSea) agreement, which was quite successful in minimizing the number of incidents between ships and aircraft of the two navies, thus reducing the danger of the inadvertent escalation of a minor incident at sea into something far more serious. The MMCA should establish similar criteria and measures between the USN and the PLAN, but Beijing has refused to agree to an IncSea-type program; until it does so, the danger of unintended escalation will remain.

If China was trying to “send a message” by having the Han surface in 2004, and the Song surface in 2006, it may not have understood its own “lesson,” assuming an unjustified level of confidence in its submariners’ abilities. Yet this does not discount the significantly increased professionalism and capability of China’s submarine force, demonstrated in the 2004 and 2006 incidents nor Beijing’s seriousness about employing that force as the primary instrument for pursuing a strategy of sea denial. In a potential Taiwan scenario, China clearly believes that submarines offer it the most efficacious means of confronting U.S. (or other opposing) naval strength when issues of vital national security are at issue.


1. The first incident is reported in Charles A. Meconis, Global Beat Issue Brief No. 39 (July 14, 1998), available online at:

2. Wang Jiasuo, “Aircraft Carriers: Suggest You Keep Out of the Taiwan Strait!,” Junshi Wenzhai (Beijing), April 1, 2001), pp. 58-59, in FBIS-CPP20020326000218.

3. For instance, see Hsiao Peng, “PLA to Conduct Landing Exercises and Attack Foreign Military Assistance,” Sing Tao Jih Pao (Hong Kong), November 14, 2001, in FBIS-CPP20011114000090; Liu Dingping, Junshi Wenzhai (Beijing), July 1, 2004, p. 19-22, in FBIS-CPP20040722000215.

4. Missile parameters are in E.R. Hooton (ed.), Jane’s Naval Weapon Systems: Issue 37 (Coulsdon, Surrey, UK: Jane’s Information Group, 2002), p. 400. A nautical mile equals approximately 1.2 statute miles.

5. PLAN submarine modernization is discussed by Eric A. McVadon, “China’s Maturing Navy,” U.S. Naval War College Review (Spring 2006).

6. “Chinese Submarines Can Tail US Aircraft Carriers,” Hsiang Kang Shang Pao (Hong Kong), May 30, 2004, in FBIS-CPP20040531000053.

7. See Qiu Yongzheng, “Chinese Submarines: Fighting for 500 Nautical Miles of Absolute Sea Superiority,” Qingnian Cankao (Beijing), June 30, 2004, in FBIS-CPP20040630000074. The history of U.S.-China “signaling” is not reassuring; see Allen Whiting, The Chinese Calculus of Deterrence (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975) for instance, or Cole, Taiwan’s Security: History and Prospects (London: Routledge, 2006), Ch. 2.