Visit of 2 Russian warships to the Philippines underscores challenge to U.S. influence.Jeremy Page, The Wall Street Journal
6 January 2017
BEIJING--A Chinese attack submarine made an unprecedented stopover in Malaysia this week in a rare public display of China’s expanding undersea force and a further sign of power realignment in Southeast Asia.
The visit came as two Russian warships docked in the Philippines—a U.S. treaty ally—and Moscow offered to sell Manila advanced weaponry in another challenge to longstanding U.S. military relations in the region.
The submarine and a Chinese navy support ship arrived in Kota Kinabalu, site of a naval base facing the South China Sea, on Tuesday and will stay until Saturday, a Malaysian naval official told The Wall Street Journal.
The official said that it was the first time a Chinese submarine had visited Malaysia and that the two vessels came for rest and recreation.
China’s Defense Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. The last confirmed port visit by a Chinese submarine was to Sri Lanka in 2014, although satellite images suggest some visited Pakistan in the past two years.
The Chinese and Russian naval forays into Southeast Asia reflect a reorientation of defense ties in the region—and beyond—as Beijing and Moscow seek to reshape a global security architecture that has been dominated by the U.S. for decades.
Malaysia and the Philippines are among several governments that contest China’s claims to most of the South China Sea and have bolstered defense ties with the U.S. in recent years in response to Beijing’s efforts to enforce its claims.
Chinese naval ships have docked in Malaysia before. But a visit by a submarine is qualitatively different, said Euan Graham, Director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“It signifies a higher level of trust involved on the host country’s part, because of the sensitive nature of
submarine operations, as stealthy war-fighting or reconnaissance platforms,” he said.
The visit signaled that Chinese submarines could operate with Malaysia’s approval in the southern extremes of the South China Sea, including around the disputed Spratly Islands, he added.
The Kota Kinabalu base houses Malaysia’s two French-built Scorpène-class submarines. U.S. Navy ships and submarines have used the base, along with facilities in the Philippines, as staging posts for operations in the South China Sea.
But since an international tribunal ruled in July that most of Beijing’s claims in the area were illegal, China has been forging closer relations with some claimants, especially the Philippines and Malaysia.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak agreed on a visit to Beijing in November to expand economic and defense ties with China. Around the same time, Malaysia agreed to buy four coastal patrol ships from China.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has indicated that he is willing to shelve the territorial dispute and build closer ties with China. During a visit to Beijing in October, he announced a separation from the U.S. and declared there were “three of us against the world—China, Philippines and Russia.”
On Friday, Mr. Duterte toured a Russian anti-submarine ship, one of the navy vessels Moscow has sent to Manila on a three-day visit.
Earlier this week, the head of the Russian naval contingent proposed joint exercises with the Philippines and the Russian ambassador offered to supply Manila with sophisticated military hardware, including submarines.
While China and Russia have a common interest in undermining U.S. defense ties, they also increasingly compete to find new markets for arms exports. Russia has sold submarines to Vietnam; China has sold them to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan.
“Russia’s primary interest in Asia is arms sales, and Duterte’s move away from the U.S. gives Moscow access to a market that hitherto was effectively closed to it,” said Ian Storey, an expert on regional security at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
The Malaysian navy official identified the visiting submarine as the Chang Cheng and the support vessel as the Chang Xing Dao but declined to provide further details. The submarine’s name suggests it was a conventionally powered diesel-electric attack submarine.
The Malaysian navy published photographs of the two visiting vessels on its official Twitter account but the name and number of the submarine weren’t visible.
The growing importance of undersea warfare in the South China Sea was demonstrated last month by a standoff between Beijing and Washington over a U.S. Navy undersea drone that was seized and held by a Chinese naval ship for five days.
China has one of the world’s largest fleets of nuclear and conventionally powered submarines and in recent years has sent them far into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. It is soon expected to launch its first patrols by submarines carrying fully armed nuclear missiles, most likely in the South China Sea, U.S. officials say.
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