HONG KONG • On July 12, a photograph of China's most advanced nuclear-powered submarine was "leaked" and published on many mainland military websites.
That was the same day an international tribunal at The Hague issued a landmark ruling dismissing China's claims in the disputed South China Sea.
Macau-based military observer Antony Wong told the South China Morning Post (SCMP) that the picture of Type 094A, which has been closely monitored by the United States, was deliberately "leaked" as a warning to Washington.
CHINA'S SEA FORTRESS
No matter what the international arbitration ruling said, China will keep pushing ahead with its maritime ambitions in the South China Sea because it regards it as a 'fortress'. The South China Sea provides the only route for China to establish itself as a real maritime power.
BEIJING-BASED MILITARY COMMENTATOR SONG ZHONGPING, on why Beijing chose to base its naval and submarine headquarters in Hainan province many years ago.
He was referring to an improved version of China's Type 094 Jin-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN).
The newest vessel is believed to be capable of delivering China's new generation, intercontinental-range ballistic missile, the JL-3, whose estimated range of 12,000km would enable it to reach the US from the waters of the South China Sea.
According to the Pentagon's annual report to Congress last year on China's military and security development, the People's Liberation Army Navy now has about 70 submarines, with 16 of them nuclear-powered.
Military observers say China's construction of artificial islands in the contested waters is to provide a ring of protection for its fleet of advanced nuclear submarines.
Most of China's nuclear-powered submarines are based at Yulin Naval Base, located in China's southern-most province of Hainan. The naval base features underground submarine facilities with tunnel access, shielding Chinese submarines that enter the South China Sea from the prying eyes of US reconnaissance satellites.
Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said that China, by building naval ports and airstrips in the Spratly archipelago, extends the reach of China's air force in the region by at least 1,000km from the Yongxing, or Woody Island, in the Paracels.
This would enable the provision of air, naval and land support to Chinese submarines, he added.
The PLA has already deployed long-range HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles, J-10 and J-11 fighter jets and sophisticated radar systems on Woody Island in the disputed Paracel Islands.
Analyst Alexander Neill, writing in an analysis piece for the BBC, said that, roughly contiguous to China's "nine-dash line" territorial claim in the South China Sea, the continental shelf drops to a deep basin of around 4,000m, offering better cover for submarines.
The East China Sea has only a few, narrow underwater channels, which means its submarines can easily be monitored, reported SCMP on Saturday.
"That's why Beijing carefully chose to base its naval and submarine headquarters in Hainan province many years ago," Beijing-based military commentator Song Zhongping told SCMP.
"No matter what the international arbitration rulings said, China will keep pushing ahead with its maritime ambitions in the South China Sea because it regards it as a 'fortress' that will enable its military expansion," he said. "The South China Sea provides the only route for China to establish itself as a real maritime power."