Satellite spots Chinese nuclear-powered submarine surfacing in the Taiwan Strait prompting renewed fears that conflict could break out amid soaring tensions in the busy shipping lane
A Chinese nuclear-powered submarine travelling through the Taiwan Strait has sparked fears of open conflict breaking out amid soaring tensions over Beijing's aggression towards the democratically-ruled island.
Submarine expert H.I. Sutton identified the vessel as a surfacing Chinese Type-94 ballistic missile submarine in a satellite image taken on Monday.
The warship was cruising in the 110-mile wide channel between mainland China and Taiwan - one of the world's busiest shipping lanes - and more frequently a staging ground for global powers to showcase their military prowess in the ferociously contested South China Sea.
President Xi Jinping claims it is only a matter of time before Taiwan is ruled by Beijing, while the West backs its independence from the Communist regime.
The reason for the sub's appearance in the strait is unknown but some analysts were surprised to see it on the surface.
'An SSBN on the surface is all but unheard of,' Carl Schuster, an ex-US Navy captain and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center told CNN.
'This may suggest a hull or engineering problem that requires a major shipyard to investigate and fix.'
He called it 'an interesting mystery' and noted that it may also have been yet another show of strength by Beijing in the Strait - which is designated as international waters.
Sutton meanwhile seemed to believe it was fairly normal, writing: 'Chinese nuclear powered submarines do return to the Bohai sea for repairs and overhaul. So the transit is likely routine.'
The satellite image was taken on Monday and Sutton said the 'wake patterns are characteristic of a submarine with typical rounded bow. The length best fits the Type-094 and the context aligns.'
Increased military traffic in the South China Sea means increased potential for an accident which could cause dire consequences in such fraught waters.
The US Congressional Research Service last year warned that increase activity in the sea and air over the region 'could increase the risk of a miscalculation or inadvertent action that could cause an accident or lead to an incident that in turn could escalate into a crisis or conflict.'
In 2018, this nearly took place when a Chinese destroyer sailed dangerously close to a US guided missile destroyer, in what the US Navy described as an "aggressive maneuver."
The two vessels came within just 45 yards of each others.
The potential for accidental collisions ramping up tensions was further heightened when a US Navy sub, USS Connecticut, struck a sea mound.
The nuclear-powered fast attack sub was able to get back to a US naval base in Guam, however, the vague statement from the Pentagon about a 'collision' only served to jangle nerves that foul play was involved.
It comes amid warnings from the Pentagon that Beijing now has 'numerically the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of approximately 355 ships and submarines,' the Defense Department said in its annual report on China.
That compares with 296 warships at the US Navy's disposal, 69 vessels operated by the Royal Navy and 295 boats deployed by the Russian Navy.
On Tuesday Vice Adm. Karl Thomas told reporters aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson that although the U.S and its allies combined forces have 'an incredible amount of power,' they should consider expanding their fleet to ensure victory in possible battle, the Wall Street Journal reported.
'When we think about how we might fight, it's a large water space, and four aircraft carriers is a good number, but six, seven or eight would be better,' he said.
When asked about the growing threat of China and Russia, whose warships patrolled in the Pacific Ocean in October, Adm. Thomas said it was important to put up a united front against 'other nations that might be more aggressive and authoritarian.'
He also added that the U.S and it's allies should use joint exercises to 'deter aggression from some of these nations that are showing burgeoning strength' and 'tell these nations that maybe today is not the day,' to start a conflict, WSJ reported.
Beijing is expected to add a third aircraft carrier in early 2022, dubbed Type-003, with satellite images from the shipyard published today indicating that it will rival the American super carriers.
Pictures of Jiangnan Shipyard from September to October show that significant progress has been made to the carrier's external components and that works on other vessels in the yard appear to have slowed, perhaps because the Type-003 has taken precedence.
Washington-based think-tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says that the carrier could be ready as early as February, stating that it 'will launch in roughly three to six months.'
The US currently leads the world with 11 aircraft carriers, Britain operates two, including its brand new HMS Queen Elizabeth, while Russia owns a single carrier.
China's growing threat was underscored further last month as satellite pictures emerged of mock-ups of a US aircraft carrier and destroyer in its northwestern desert, believed to be used in wargames amid rising tensions between the nuclear-armed nations.
The Pentagon has also recently issued a report saying China is expanding its nuclear force much faster than U.S. officials predicted just a year ago.
That appears designed to enable Beijing to match or surpass U.S. global power by mid-century, the report said.
US defense officials have said they are increasingly wary of China's intentions, largely with regard to the status of Taiwan.
'The PLA's evolving capabilities and concepts continue to strengthen (China's) ability to `fight and win wars' against a `strong enemy' - a likely euphemism for the United States,' the report said.
China's navy and coast guard are also adding new vessels at a record pace, concentrating them in the South China Sea, the strategic waterway that China claims virtually in its entirety.
While the US Navy remains predominant, its resources are divided between the Indo-Pacific, the Persian Gulf, the Mediterranean and other regions where American interests lie.
Tensions have soared with the United States in recent weeks after Washington announced the new Aukus security pact with the UK and Australia, which is designed to counter China's threat in the Indo-Pacific.
Despite China's overall numerical naval advantage, the number of aircraft carriers is crucial as these vessels act as floating fortresses and represent a formidable strategic obstacle for the enemy to overcome.