China has deployed a submarine in the Indian Ocean in October after a gap of over a year. Senior officials in the Defence Ministry told India Today that a Type O39A Yuan class SSK (diesel-electric attack submarine) accompanied by a submarine rescue vessel was sent into the Indian Ocean this month.
This is the eighth such deployment of a PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) submarine in the Indian Ocean for what China calls anti-piracy patrols, and the first since the 72-day standoff between Indian and Chinese troops in Doklam called off in August last year.
The last submarine in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) was also a Yuan class SSK with the Chinese Navy support ship, in June 2017.
Then, in October 2017, after the two vessels returned to base, there was a year-long pause. The resumption of Chinese submarine patrols have piqued the Indian Navy’s interest. The PLAN submarine rescue vessel ‘Hai Yangdao’ and submarine were detected and tracked by an Indian IL-38 long-range maritime patrol aircraft as they made their way into the Indian Ocean.
While the submarine docked at the Colombo port on October 4, the Yuan class submarine remained out at the sea. In May 2017, Colombo had declined permission for a Chinese submarine to dock at its harbor after India’s protest in 2014.
Hai Yangdao is a Type 926 class submarine tender, believed to be the PLAN’s most advanced submarine rescue vessel. The ship carries onboard a British-built LR7 submarine rescue vessel which the Chinese Navy acquired in 2008. The rescue submarine can operate in depths of 300 metres and can extract 18 submariners from a bottomed submarine.
Officials said, “In previous deployments, Chinese submarines have been accompanied by submarine tenders.This is the first time they have sent a submarine rescue vessel. The Hai Yangdao and the submarine were sailed out from Colombo towards the Gulf of Aden on October 7.”
Interestingly, the Indian Navy on October 13 announced it had acquired its first submarine rescue vessel. “The Indian Navy joins a select league of nations with the capability to locate and provide rescue to distressed submarines by induction of its first DSRV and associated kit in flyaway configuration,” according to the spokerperson at Indian Navy.
Defence officials read more than just a coincidence into the deployment of the PLAN’s rescue ship. “The PLAN clearly wants to demonstrate the fact that it can also be a net provider of submarine rescue in the Indian Ocean region,” the officials said.
China intends to project power into the Indian Ocean region (IOR) through its submarine deployments which began in December 2013 with the three-month patrol of a Shang class nuclear powered attack submarine in the IOR.
The patrol followed President Xi Jingping’s 2013 announcement of the Belt and Road initiative, a China-centric trading network estimated to cost over $4 trillion. The IOR is key to what China calls the ‘Maritime Silk Road’.
The Indian Navy is closely watching the Yuan class for several reasons. The Yuan SSK displaces 3,600 tons is a Chinese copy of the Kilo class submarine and is armed with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles.
A Yuan class on an IOR deployment made a port call at Karachi in 2015 and the following year, Pakistan announced it was buying eight Yuan class submarines from China under a deal believed to be worth $5 billion. The first four submarines are being built in China and likely to be delivered to Pakistan by 2023.