Pentagon warns on risk of Chinese submarines in Arctic

FILE PHOTO: The Pentagon in Washington, U.S., is seen from aboard Air Force One, March 29, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Deepening Chinese activities in the Arctic region could pave the way for a strengthened military presence, including the deployment of submarines to act as deterrents against nuclear attack, the Pentagon said in a report released on Thursday.

The assessment is included in the U.S. military’s annual report to Congress on China’s armed forces and follows Beijing’s publication of its first official Arctic policy white paper in June.

In that paper, China outlined plans to develop shipping lanes opened up by global warming to form a “Polar Silk Road” – building on President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative.

China, despite being a non-Arctic state, is increasingly active in the polar region and became an observer member of the Arctic Council in 2013. That has prompted concerns from Arctic states over Beijing’s long-term strategic objectives, including possible military deployments.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will attend the meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council in Rovaniemi, Finland, starting on Monday, which comes amid concerns over China’s increased commercial interests in the Arctic.

The Pentagon report noted that Denmark has expressed concern about China’s interest in Greenland, which has included proposals to establish a research station and a satellite ground station, renovate airports and expand mining.

“Civilian research could support a strengthened Chinese military presence in the Arctic Ocean, which could include deploying submarines to the region as a deterrent against nuclear attacks,” the report said.

The Pentagon report noted that China’s military has made modernizing its submarine fleet a high priority. China’s navy operates four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines, six nuclear-powered attack submarines and 50 conventionally powered attack submarines, the report said.

“The speed of growth of the submarine force has slowed and (it) will likely grow to between 65 and 70 submarines by 2020,” the report predicted.

The report said China had built six Jin-class submarines, with four operational and two under construction at Huludao Shipyard.

In a January report, the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency said the Chinese navy would need a minimum of five Jin-class submarines to maintain a continuous nuclear deterrence at sea.

The United States and its allies, in turn, are expanding their anti-submarine naval deployments across East Asia. This includes stepped-up patrols of America’s advanced, sub-hunting P-8 Poseidon planes out of Singapore and Japan.

TAIWAN CONTINGENCY

The expansion of China’s submarine forces is just one element of a broad, and costly, modernization of its military, which U.S. experts say is designed largely to deter any action by America’s armed forces.

Although Beijing’s official defense budget for 2018 was $175 billion, the Pentagon estimated that China’s budget actually topped $200 billion, when including research, development and foreign weapons procurement. It estimated that China’s official defense budget would likely grow to about $260 billion by 2022.

Much of China’s military doctrine is focused on self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province.

On Jan. 2, Xi said in a speech that China reserved the right to use force to bring Taiwan under its control but would strive to achieve peaceful “reunification.”

The Pentagon report outlined a number of potential scenarios that China might take if Beijing decides to use military force on Taiwan, including a comprehensive campaign “designed to force Taiwan to capitulate to unification or unification dialogue.”

But the U.S. analysis appeared to downplay prospects for a large-scale amphibious Chinese invasion, saying that could strain its armed forces and invite international intervention. It also noted the possibility of limited missile strikes.

“China could use missile attacks and precision air strikes against air defense systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets, and communications facilities to degrade Taiwan’s defenses, neutralize Taiwan’s leadership, or break the Taiwan people’s resolve,” the report said.

China has repeatedly sent military aircraft and ships to circle the island on drills in the past few years and worked to isolate Taiwan internationally, whittling down its few remaining diplomatic allies.

It has also strongly objected to U.S. warship passages through the Taiwan Strait, which have greatly increased in frequency in the past year.

Taiwan’s military is significantly smaller than China’s, a gap that the Pentagon noted is growing year by year.

Recognizing the disparity, the Pentagon report noted: “Taiwan has stated that it is working to develop new concepts and capabilities for asymmetric warfare.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish and Leslie Adler)

Minutes from missiles, Guam islanders get to grips with uncertain fate

By Martin Petty

GUAM (Reuters) – Fourteen minutes is not long to prepare for a potential catastrophe. That’s the estimated time taken from a launch of a mid-range ballistic missile in North Korea until impact on Guam, where residents seem resigned to the belief that their fate is out of their control.

The local government of this tiny U.S. Pacific island issued preparation guidance to its 163,000 people on Friday on how best to hide and deal with radiation after threats by Pyongyang to strike Guam, or test its missiles in its surrounding waters.

But islanders don’t seem in a hurry to get ready.

Mike Benavente, 37, who maintains air conditioners, said he saw the advisory on Facebook, but preferred family time at a beach barbecue to stocking up on supplies and thinking about suitable shelter options.

“Preparation for attack? I’m doing it!” he said, pointing to a grill he was readying for burgers and hot dogs. “If we have a big missile coming here, everyone’s gonna die. How can I prepare for a missile?”

In a guidance note titled “Preparing for an Imminent Missile Threat”, Guam Homeland Security advised seeking out in advance windowless shelters in homes, schools and offices, with concrete “dense enough to absorb radiation”.

It said if an attack warning came, residents should seek shelter and stay there for at least 24 hours. Those caught outside should lay down, cover their heads and “not look at the flash or fireball” to avoid going blind.

Plush hotels along Guam’s Tumon beach didn’t seem in a rush to prepare either. Staff at several hotels and resorts said they knew guidelines had been issued but already had procedures in place for emergencies.

“We have an evacuation plan for typhoon, tsunami, terrorism, but we don’t have anything for a North Korean missile attack,” said a supervisor at one resort, who asked that neither he nor his hotel be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

A manager at a hotel nearby had a printed copy of the guidelines, but said there was no instruction yet to distribute it to guests.

 

TIME LIMITED

North Korea on Thursday said plans would be completed by mid-August to fire four intermediate-range missiles to land near Guam, some 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) away, after U.S. President Donald Trump said any threat would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

Guam, an island half the size of Hong Kong and some 7,000 km from the U.S. mainland, is a target because of its naval base and air force base, from which two B-1B supersonic bombers were deployed close to the Korean peninsula on Tuesday.

It is also a permanent home to a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor.

Local authorities have been reassuring residents and tourists that a “strategic defense umbrella” across the Western Pacific can counter any missile attacks, and the chance of a successful North Korean strike on Guam was minimal.

“Our confidence is it’s point zero zero, zero zero, zero – that’s five zeros – and a one,” the governor’s homeland security advisor, George Charfauros, said on Friday.

“The threat level has not changed. It’s business as usual.”

That was the case on Saturday in Guam’s malls and along its pristine beaches, where children played in the turquoise sea as parents drank beer and prepared picnics.

“I haven’t really thought about preparation. We really don’t know what to do if there’s a missile attack,” said Marlene, 37, an accountant.

“We get just 14 minutes. The military says they’ll be ready, so we’re banking on them.”

Auto parts seller Mitch Aguon, 51, spent his day off fishing and said preparation was pointless.

“By the time we hear about it, it’ll be too late and there’s no room for us ordinary Joes in the bomb shelters. We’re dead meat,” he said.

 

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan)