The Pentagon is worried that it may see more submarines deployed by the People’s Liberation Army further afield, such as in the Arctic Ocean, as China’s bold military presence in waters on the top of the world may hinder the US nuclear deterrence.

That assessment was included in the Pentagon’s annual report on the PLA to the United States Congress.

Even though it does not border the world’s northernmost waters, China outlined plans in a white paper last year to develop new shipping shortcuts opened up by the melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean and to collaborate with Russia to form a “Polar Silk Road”.

Beijing’s Arctic ambitions have understandably caused trepidation among nations in the region, as the melting of sea ice may also enable new locations to launch faster missile attacks to anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

Interest in Greenland

The Pentagon report said Denmark had expressed concern about China’s interest in its autonomous region of Greenland, after Beijing proposed a slew of initiatives with Copenhagen to set up a research station and a satellite ground station, and to renovate airports and expand mining on the frigid yet strategically-located island that sits between the Arctic and the Atlantic.

The report has also raised cautionary flags about Chinese civilian research stations and ships, such as its icebreaking research vessels the Xuelong-1 and Xuelong-2.

China’s icebreaker Xuelong-1 in the Arctic Ocean. Photo: Xinhua

“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,” read the Pentagon’s report.

The PLA currently operates four nuclear-powered ballistic-missile submarines, six nuclear-powered assault submarines and 50 conventional attack subs. Moreover, the total fleet size is expected to reach 65 to 70 by 2020, according to the report.

The PLA has launched six cutting-edge Jin-class submarines, aka Type 094, with four currently operational and two still under construction, and the force may need at least five such submarines to maintain a continuous nuclear deterrence at sea.

The Type 094 is armed with 12 JL-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, each with an estimated range of 7,400 kilometers and it can also carry three to four nuclear warheads, giving the PLA its first credible sea-based nuclear strike capability. Analysts say a Type 094 patrolling in the Arctic Ocean would be able to strike the United States mainland.

China does not border the Arctic Ocean.

In response, the US and its allies are expanding their anti-submarine naval deployments across East Asia, and Reuters and AFP have revealed that the plan includes stepped-up patrols of the P-8 Poseidon, an anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare plane, out of Singapore and Japan.

On Monday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Finland attending a meeting of the eight-nation Arctic Council. China gained its observer status at the council in 2013.

In Beijing, Chinese mouthpieces have hit back at the Pentagon’s allegations, calling the report a means for the US to sell a new polar version of the China threat theory.

The Global Times also commented that when the US is emphasizing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, it should also respect China’s maritime rights in the Arctic region.