All but unnoticed, except among navies and in specialty press, China is taking her first steps as a member of a very small, elite club: the nations that have ocean-going, power-projecting submarine forces.

Chinese submarines have taken part in naval exercises for many years, and are known to undertake patrol missions in the waters off China’s coast. But a mission currently in progress, confirmed by a Chinese military spokesman last week, constitutes the first publicly announced deployment of a Chinese attack submarine for a distant “power projection” operation, of a kind the U.S., a few of our NATO allies, and Russia have hitherto had to ourselves.

A Chinese Song-class (Type 039) diesel-powered attack submarine (SS) sparked considerable interest when it was observed making a port visit in Colombo, Sri Lanka, 7-14 September. This was the first time a Chinese submarine had been seen in that area, although previous regional reporting indicated that the Chinese navy (the People’s Liberation Army Navy, or PLAN) has operated at least one submarine in the Indian Ocean in the past year.

The earlier deployment involved a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN), which allowed the PLAN to complete the deployment without making port calls along the way. According to Indian reporting (last link above), Beijing quietly informed six nations (including the U.S. and India) of the deployment, through diplomatic channels, “possibly to prevent adverse reactions in case their SSN encountered technical problems.” The nations notified are all equipped with submarines that patrol the waters the PLAN sub was to transit; it’s likely the Chinese notified those nations to avoid the potentially unpleasant consequences of surprising them at sea.

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