Nuclear submarine operations in South China Sea endanger coastal countries

Oct 18, 2021
US South China Sea
USS Carl Vinson, South China Sea. (Image: Flickr/US Navy)

The accident involving a US nuclear-powered submarine in the South China Sea brings into scrutiny the ramifications of such an accident. The release of nuclear radiation could damage the food supply of many nations.

“US demands details of Chinese nuclear sub accident off California,” screamed the headlines.

No, that has not happened — not yet.  But just imagine if it did, and the US reaction. It and the public would immediately want to know: was there any radiation leakage from the reactor or its nuclear weapons — if it was carrying them? What caused the accident? Where exactly did it happen? What was it doing there in the first place? And more.

Now to reality. On October 7, the US Navy announced that five days earlier, its fast-attack nuclear submarine USS Connecticut hit an unidentified object in the South China Sea. According to the announcement, the submarine “remained in a safe and stable condition” and its “nuclear propulsion plant and spaces were not affected and remain fully operational.” The vessel eventually limped on the surface under its own power into Guam, where the damage is being assessed. The USS Connecticut is one of only three Seawolf-class submarines designed to hunt the best Soviet submarines near the end of the Cold War. They can operate in shallow water and may carry nuclear weapons.

The US Navy announcement was curt and vague. It did not say what the submarine hit or where — only that it was “operating in international waters in the Indo-Pacific region.” It was belatedly reported that anonymous sources said it was in the South China Sea. This episode was not the epitome of transparency in defence matters that the US often demands of China and complains about when it does not meet US ”standards” thereof.

This delay and the deliberate vagueness of the announcement raises the question: where exactly did it occur? This is important because it may have been within the claimed jurisdiction of one or more South China Sea coastal countries. The US claims it adheres to the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) even though unlike all other major maritime powers it has not ratified it. There is no legal entity in UNCLOS called “international waters”. This term is a unilateral invention of the US Navy and is used to teach their ship operators where the US Navy thinks it has high-seas freedoms.

All coastal countries bordering the South China Sea claim 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) and can claim continental shelves extending out to 350 nautical miles from baselines. Contrary to the US Navy’s position, under UNCLOS, the EEZ does have some restrictions on freedom of navigation. Foreign vessels exercising their rights in a country’s EEZ must have “due regard” for the rights and duties of the coastal state as well as for the interests of other states exercising their high-seas freedoms.  That means they should not violate the country’s laws, provided they are compatible with UNCLOS, nor should they endanger its environment and living resources, or present a hazard to other vessels.

South-East Asians rely more heavily on fish as a primary source of dietary protein and income generation than any other people. Approximately half of the region’s population gets more than 20 per cent of their animal protein from fish.

The South China Sea fisheries could be endangered if there were any leakage of radiation from the vessel. Thus as China’s foreign ministry spokesperson said: “The United States should clarify more details of the occurrence, including the specific location, the intention of its navigation, what kind of object the sub had struck, whether it caused a nuclear leak that would contaminate the marine environment. It’s irresponsible and displays a lack of transparency on the part of the US to deliberately delay and conceal the details of the accident.”

The US denied that it was trying to cover up the accident. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said: “It’s an odd way of covering something up when you put out a press release about it.” But this obvious red herring just made China and the region even more suspicious as to what the US was trying to hide.

The accident revealed US hypocrisy regarding defence transparency and its blatant disregard for the interest of others. More importantly, it served to focus attention on the growing presence of nuclear submarines in the semi-enclosed South China Sea and the increasing threat of such accidents.

This is not the first accident involving a US nuclear-powered and nuclear-weapon capable submarine. On January 8, 2005, the Los Angeles-class USS San Francisco struck a seamount near the Caroline Islands that did not appear on the charts the crew was using to navigate without active sonar. The submarine was operating at maximum speed at a depth of 525 feet. Most subs have both active and passive sonar. Active sonar sends out acoustic pulses, or “pings”. The ping will reflect back if it hits an object like a whale, a ship, a seamount or another submarine. But subs operating in stealth mode turn off their active sonar because the ping could give away their location.

The USS San Francisco was almost lost because the forward ballasts tanks and sonar dome were severely damaged.

Then there was the infamous case of the Scorpion which was lost in May 1968 with all hands and its nuclear reactor and nuclear torpedoes in the North Atlantic.

The point is that such accidents, once rare, are becoming more frequent. Moreover, the chance of one is increasing with the proliferation of submarines in the South China Sea. The AUKUS agreement for the US and UK to supply nuclear-submarine technology to Australia for operations that include the South China Sea only adds to the mix.  Other countries also operate nuclear submarines in the South China Sea including France and perhaps the UK as part of its Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier strike group. India, which is now sending warships to the South China Sea, has one but is building more. China already has four Jin-class nuclear submarines and is hoping to acquire another four by 2030.

Even more problematic is that the South China Sea is a difficult operating environment for submarines. It is particularly ”noisy” and has rather complex and shifting bottom topography.

One accident that releases nuclear radiation could damage the marine food supply for all the littoral countries through aversion to eating it if nothing else. Although the radiation may be insignificant or rapidly decrease to safe levels, the reputational damage to the fishery will last much longer.

Such an accident would be a nightmare for the regional countries. The US and others should reconsider such ”exercises” in the South China Sea, especially those that require them to run stealthily at full speed. The South China Sea coastal countries have legitimate cause for concern.

The Association of South-East Asian Nations and related summits will be held on October 26 to 28 in Brunei, followed by the East Asia Summit in November. The participants may wish to address this issue.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post.

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