In the last few years the Chinese Navy has experienced a growing number of historical firsts. The latest one was in September 2014 when, for the first time, a Chinese submarine passed through the Strait of Malacca and entered the Indian Ocean. That has happened several times since then, and one of the subs was nuclear powered. The Chinese subs showed up in Sri Lanka and as far west as the Persian Gulf. Apparently Chinese subs are going to visit the Indian Ocean on a regular basis from now on.
This is all part of a new policy that puts warships to sea a lot more often than in the past and sends these ships to a lot of places Chinese warships have never been before. Thus during the last decade Chinese warships have been achieving a lot of firsts. For example in 2013 Chinese warships visiting Chile and Argentina passed through the Strait of Magellan for the first time in history. At the same time a Chinese amphibious ship (a 19,000 ton LPD) with marines on board visited Syria. This was the first time a Chinese amphibious ship had visited the Mediterranean. China has three of these LPDs and they have also been serving as part of the international anti-piracy task force off Somalia. Chinese warships have been off the African coast centuries ago, but in the last decade they have been their regularly operating off the Somali coast with the international anti-piracy patrol. That’s the first time Chinese warships have participated in this kind of long-term international effort.
Closer to home in 2013 Chinese warships were, for the first time, seen moving through the La Perouse Straits, which separates the Russian island of Sakhalin and the Japanese northernmost home island of Hokkaido. Chinese warships later, for the first time moved completely around the Japanese islands. In 2014 came more firsts. In February Chinese warships were seen moving through the Sunda Strait (between the Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra) for the first time. More firsts are expected this year and next.
There are so many naval firsts now because for most of China’s history there was an attitude that there was really nothing useful beyond Chinese borders. Some ships were built for trade, but not on a large scale and never with a powerful navy to protect them. Then China began liberalizing and modernizing its economy in the 1980s and that led to lots of exports and even more imports of raw materials and items that China did not make. That justified a larger, sea going, navy. Before the Chinese navy was a coastal force. No more. China’s economic interests are worldwide and now so is its navy.
Another 2014 first also put China in a very select club when, for the first time, it successfully dismantled one of its nuclear subs. Only the U.S., Russia and France have done this although Britain is planning to do so as soon as it can decide where to store (for several million years) the nuclear reactors and all their radioactive components. Nuclear subs are made non-nuclear once the reactors are taken from the subs. This requires partial dismantling of these boats. Then the radioactive reactor components are then sealed in a sturdy radiation proof container. These are then put under guard somewhere safe, usually in an isolated and geologically stable area.
The Chinese sub recently dismantled was built in the early 1970s and was not decommissioned until the early 1990s. It had been tied up at a pier ever since. It wasn’t until late 2013 that China presented its nuclear subs in the Chinese media for the first time. The theme for this event was that in 42 years of operation no Chinese nuclear sub has ever suffered a nuclear reactor accident. This was an indirect dig at the Russians, who are the only nation with nuclear subs to have suffered nuclear accidents.