There are several sources of instability in the Asia Pacific region today. Some are political, such as China's pursuit of territorial claims at sea and on land at the expense of its neighbours. Others are military, such as those elements of Chinese military modernisation aimed at coercing Beijing's neighbours and countering US extended deterrence guarantees and power projection capabilities. Chinese doctrine also contains features that could be highly destabilising. Finally, there is a considerable potential for misperception among actors in the region.

The deployment of nuclear-armed submarines (SSBNs) is unlikely to contribute greatly to stability, but neither is it likely to create instability where none existed or to magnify existing sources of instability.

Beijing is undertaking a large-scale modernisation of its military, including its nuclear force. According to Department of Defense and press sources, China is fielding the mobile DF-31A intercontinental ballistic missile and is developing the mobile DF-41 with multiple independently-targetable re-entry vehicles. According to press reports, China has also conducted at least two tests of the WU-14 hypersonic boost-glide vehicle. China also fields theatre nuclear strike systems such as the DF-21. And China has invested considerable resources in developing and deploying the Jin-class SSBN and JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile (pictured).

China's nuclear modernisation is aimed at giving the Chinese leadership a secure second-strike capability. As Tom Christensen has argued, that is in turn likely to embolden China (if it has not already done so) to pursue a more aggressive foreign policy. The deployment of SSBNs is clearly part of that but is far less consequential than other Chinese developments. These include:

  • The continuing deployment of large numbers of precision conventional ballistic missiles that threaten China's neighbours.
  • The fact that China apparently to some extent co-mingles the deployment and command and control of its nuclear and conventional forces.
  • The Chinese Second Artillery Force's doctrine, which discusses missile strikes in close proximity to hostile forces as deterrent actions.

Misperception and miscalculation are always a possibility with the deployment and operation of any new capability, and it would behove the Chinese Government to be transparent in its plans for its SSBN force. That said, the deployment of SSBNs is likely to be far less consequential than other elements of Chinese military modernisation.

The Lowy Institute gratefully acknowledges support from the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation for this Interpreter debate, which is part of a broader research, dialogue and outreach project on strategic stability in Indo-Pacific Asia.

Photo courtesy of Sinodefence Forum.