Several recent events, from an eagle-eyed spotting of an image on Google Earth to an overt military delivery from Russia, suggest that China is continuing its rapid expansion of a submarine fleet that would be particularly useful in a conflict with the US over Taiwan, analysts and military officials said.
US and other Western military analysts estimate that China now has more than 30 advanced and increasingly stealthy submarines, and dozens of older, obsolete types. By the end of the decade, they say, China will have more submarines than the US, although it will still lag behind in overall ability.
"I would say that the US feels a strong threat from Chinese submarines," said Andrei Chang, an expert on Chinese and Taiwan military forces and editor of Kanwa Defense Review. "China now has more submarines than Russia, and the speed they are building them is amazing."
The US Navy developed a range of antisubmarine sensors and weapons in the Cold War that are still considered the world's best. But fighting submarines has been less of a military priority since then, experts say.
Several events have shed light on the growth and technological advances in China's fleet.
In late 2006, one of China's new Song-class conventional submarines remained undetected as it shadowed the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, although the exact details of the encounter remain the subject of continuing debate. It then surfaced well within torpedo range.
To some China experts in the US military, this was an aggressive signal to Washington that China could challenge the US Navy in waters around Taiwan. It also showed that Chinese submarine technology had advanced more rapidly than some experts had expected.
"The US had no idea it was there," said Allan Behm, a security analyst in Canberra, Australia, and a former senior Australian Defense Department official. "This is the great capability of very quiet, conventional submarines."
In July, in another sign of technological progress, China displayed photographs and models of its new Shang-class nuclear-powered attack submarine at an exhibition in Beijing. Two submarines of this class are in service, the official People's Daily newspaper reported then.
In October, Hans Kristensen, a researcher with the Federation of American Scientists, spotted a Google Earth satellite image that seemed to show two of China's Jin-class nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines. Some military analysts were surprised that China had built a second submarine of this class so soon after the first, in 2004.
And to put the improvement of its fleet on a fast track, China has also taken delivery of 12 advanced Kilo-class conventional submarines from Russia, defense experts say. They say the designs of the newest Chinese submarines show evidence of technical assistance from Russia.
Many security experts, including senior Pentagon analysts, say that China's main objective in upgrading its submarine fleet is the ability to delay or deter US intervention on behalf of Taiwan.
Stealthy submarines would pose a direct threat to the deployment of US aircraft carrier battle groups, likely the first line of response to a Taiwan crisis, security experts say.
The Pentagon is monitoring China closely, officials say.
"Chinese submarines have very impressive capabilities, and their numbers are increasing," the senior US military commander in Asia, Admiral Timothy Keating, said in Beijing recently.
He urged China to be more open about its plans, which he said would reduce the risk of crisis or conflict.
Senior Chinese officers have said that the buildup is strictly defensive.
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