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Irresponsible US submarine exercises threaten South China Sea health and safety

2021-10-21 16:05:20       source:NISCSS

October 14, 2021

“US demands details of Chinese nuclear sub accident off California” screamed the headline. No, that has not happened – not yet. But just imagine the US reaction if it did.


The public would immediately want to know if there was any radiation leakage from the reactor or its nuclear weapons, if it was carrying them. What caused the accident? Where did it happen? What was it doing there in the first place?


On October 7, the US Navy announced that its fast attack nuclear submarine USS Connecticut had hit an unidentified object in the South China Sea five days earlier. 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 returned to Guam under its own power. 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 could carry nuclear weapons.


The US Navy announcement was 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 United States often demands of China. The delay and the vagueness of the announcement raise many questions.


First, where exactly did it occur? This is important because it might have been within the claimed jurisdiction of one or more South China Sea coastal countries. The US says it adheres to the provisions of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), even though it has not ratified it.


All coastal countries bordering the South China Sea claim 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and can claim continental shelves extending out to 350 nautical miles from baselines. Under Unclos, an EEZ has 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.


Southeast Asian nations rely on fish as a primary source of dietary protein and income generation more heavily than anyone else. About half of the region’s population gets more than 20 per cent of its animal protein from fish, and South China Sea fisheries could have been endangered if there was any radiation leakage from the vessel.


Thus, as Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian 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 has denied it was covering up the accident. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said, “It’s an odd way of covering something up when you put out a press release about it.” But Kirby’s response just made China more suspicious.


This is not the first accident involving a US nuclear-powered 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 were using to navigate without active sonar. The submarine was operating at maximum speed at a depth of 160 metres.


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, 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 ballast tanks and sonar dome were severely damaged.


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 United Kingdom to supply nuclear submarine technology to Australia only adds to the mix.


Other countries also operate nuclear submarines in the South China Sea, including France and the UK. 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 hopes 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 topography.


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


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


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit and related meetings take place from October 26 to 28 in Brunei, followed by the East Asia Summit in November. The participants might wish to address this issue.


Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

Link: https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3152154/irresponsible-us-submarine-exercises-threaten-south-china-sea