Is China hiding a missing submarine in the sea?

Oct 18, 2023
Yellow Nuclear Submarine, 3D rendering

If we were to believe the UK’s Daily Mail, China should be in mourning, they have lost a crew of 55 and a Nuclear submarine. The Times, historically, a reputable media outlet led with the headline that “China kills own sailors with a trap set for British and US submarines”.

But, if we were to believe it, we would also be surprised at China’s lack of response. The only response they’ve made is to say the reports are completely false.

Both the Mail and the Times have expressed doubts about the sources but all stories about this submarine share one common thread: China, other than one denial, has made no further mention of it. For people who know China, this is normal. China’s media follows certain patterns in such events: If there was truth to the story, they won’t comment or speculate but will wait until the appropriate departments have investigated, analysed and confirmed, if there has been a naval disaster, they would also ensure that the families have been advised before making announcements.

Where there is truth in such a story such as this, Chinese media will provide details but never sensationalise. This is due to respect for the families and the memories of those lost. Respect is a very important factor in Chinese culture, especially respect for those who are “gone”. However, that doesn’t appear to be the reason why China is silent about the matter, the reason is much more simple.

Newsweek ran an article which also couldn’t decide if the incident had really happened but all indicators, from their sources in Taiwan, are that it did not. The article focused on China’s pride in their military and how such an event would dent that. It does however concede that “we should not be surprised” if the story proves accurate.
Something else, unrelated to the submarine, was significant about this Newsweek article, one line using a quote from an expert:
“They even build ships that are of a class inappropriate to their current strategy…”

The significance might be lost on some readers because it appears in the middle of a segment about how China’s navy is being built up. Readers, who hold the view of an “aggressive China,” might wonder why Chinese planners stupidly (or naively) don’t cater for their own strategy, but then a more critical reader who understands China better, would argue that China’s naval build up suits their strategy exactly; a strategy of naval defence, not naval attack. This “expert”, whatever his expertise in military build-up, seems unqualified to understand, China is not and never has been interested in “invading” Taiwan. They will, and have long said they would, protect and defend Taiwan from being taken away, in the manner that Hong Kong, much of Shanghai and many other “concessions and treaty ports” were. A situation that existed right up to 1949. The expansion of a defensive navy suits that purpose perfectly.

Spytalk, a Substack page managed by Jeff Stein, a former Newsweek correspondent, has a more in-depth analysis written by author and Jamestown Foundation Fellow Matthew Brazil, his report seems to indicate this is not a true story either. Brazil is critical that the location isn’t known, the sources are not named, the photo of the submarine used was of the wrong type and he cites an expert in submarines, Iain Ballantyne who points out that this is not a new story, it’s an old one recycled from time to time and that the particulars “do not quite add up”.

This ship is supposed to have run into an old-style 1990’s trap in the Yellow Sea, off the coast of Shandong, if China put it there, it’s a fairly safe bet that their submarine commanders know where it is. Furthermore, salvage ships, special equipment and specialised personnel would have headed out of port and to the accident site in very short time.

The primary source of the story indicates that a salvage did happen and took only 6-hours. The damaged ship was recovered and post-mortem reports indicate all crew on board died of hypoxia, related to toxic gas. But no information was given on where the boat was taken, what methods were used to take it or how long that took.

Just over 20 years ago, there was much criticism of the attempts to rescue the Russian submarine Kursk, there was also much international news of the efforts. Surely the same would be true of a Chinese vessel, had this event actually occurred, then satellite imagery would have been available, observers from vessels in the region and, undoubtedly, the Pentagon would have information. It speaks volumes for the veracity of this story that no one observing one of the most tense regions of the world, and one of its busiest shipping regions, noticed or commented on this rescue and salvage operation, let alone a complicated process of returning a damaged submarine to port.

The simplest way to find out how stories such as this get into media is to go to the primary sources which appears to be a Chinese virologist and, some say conspiracy theorist, Dr Yan Li-Meng in her podcast America Out Loud and Twitter posts back in August (predating the change to X). Not only that, according to Australia’s Courier Mail, Dr Yan has now stated there is a survivor and has reported that Xi Jinping is furious about the entire matter. She also states she has “secret information” that the submarine was tracked by a bug in a crew member’s Apple smartwatch.

Her sources are classically conspiratorial: secret information from inside Zhongnanhai; exclusive but unnamed sources from the Central Military Commission; a leaked British intelligence assessment; and a report no one else has seen of a nuclear-powered submarine in which all personnel but one perished; this is all garnished with a tale of a bugged or hacked smartwatch capable of relaying information from the depths of the sea though the hull of a submarine. All of these seem to be what Iain Ballantyne means when he says they: “do not quite add up”.

Add to this, lack of comment from the Pentagon, normally a leaky sieve, not even sources “speaking under conditions of anonymity because they aren’t authorised to speak” and this tells us even more; if Washington’s investigative journalists can’t get a whiff of a story, then it’s likely that there isn’t really a story to sniff out.

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