Japan’s Asahi Shimbun reported on Monday that China is making fresh inroads in the Indian Ocean region by selling cheap submarines to Bangladesh, Pakistan and Thailand.
The bargain-basement sub sales are said to be alarming India, which is increasingly concerned about Beijing’s continuing naval advances in Asian waters, as well as the Pacific.
China also has a submarine presence in the Indian Ocean. Asahi quotes Indian military sources as saying that the Chinese Navy has been operating submarines since 2013 in the Indian Ocean. The missions are said to occur twice yearly and typically last about three months.
Bangladesh was the first to acquire relatively inexpensive Chinese subs when it bought two used Ming-class diesel-powered vessels in 2013. The subs became operational in March 2017.
Low as $100 million
One local military source estimated the cost of each of the Bangladeshi subs at US$100 million. This is said to be one-tenth of the price of a new European submarine.
In April 2017, Thailand agreed to buy two new Yuan-class subs. The Yuans are reportedly two classes more advanced than the Mings bought by Bangladesh. Asahi quoted a Thai government source as saying each sub will cost about US$424 million.
Bangkok is considering purchasing two more Yuan subs.
A proposal was also made during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Pakistan in 2015 for Islamabad to acquire eight Chinese submarines. China confirmed the existence of the plan in 2016. The eight will be Yuan-class subs. Four are expected to be constructed in Pakistan.
Asahi says China’s new focus on the Indian Ocean is part of a shift in maritime strategy from coastal and near-sea defense to one that extends to the Pacific and Indian oceans. The strategy puts more emphasis on aircraft carriers and submarines — which China has been building at an accelerated rate.
Spin-offs for Beijing
The purchase of Chinese submarines by Indian Ocean littoral states has several spin-off benefits for Beijing. Asahi notes it allows Beijing to extend its influence in related maritime areas. For example, harbors capable of hosting the submarines will be constructed.
Nations that buy Chinese subs must also install repair and supply facilities that match specifications required for handling these types of Chinese vessels.
“This gives China the option of asking that its submarines be allowed to temporarily berth there for repairs or to acquire weapons,” Asahi said.
The more submarines China sells to regional nations, the more data it will amass that is related to operations and potential challenges. All this can be used to improve China’s sub technology, experts told Asahi.
Countries purchasing Chinese subs must also rely on Chinese naval officers and technicians for advice on operations and maintenance. “Those personnel could also play a key role in gathering vital information, including seabed mapping, as China strives to improve its submarine capabilities,” Asahi said.
Egypt and Cuba are reportedly among the other countries that have expressed an interest in buying Chinese submarines.