CHINA has secretly built an underground nuclear submarine base that could threaten Asian countries and challenge US power in the region, defence analysts say.
Satellite imagery apparently shows a large harbour has been built that could house a score of nuclear ballistic missile submarines and a host of aircraft carriers. In what will be a big challenge to the naval dominance of the US and to countries ringing the South China Sea, one photograph shows China's latest 094 nuclear submarine at the base only a few hundred kilometres from its neighbours.
Other images show warships at long jetties and a network of tunnels at the Sanya base on the southern tip of Hainan island.
Of even greater concern to the Pentagon are immense tunnel entrances, estimated to be 18 metres high, carved into hillsides around the base. Sources fear they could lead to caverns capable of concealing from spy satellites up to 20 nuclear submarines.
Satellite images are said to show 11 tunnel openings. Analysts believe the ones photographed could be opened to the sea following further construction. They say they have also detected a possible demagnetisation plant at the dockside that would make a submarine harder to detect by sonar.
The US Defence Department has estimated China will have five 094 nuclear submarines ready by 2010, with each capable of carrying 12 JL-2 nuclear missiles.
The images were obtained by Jane's Intelligence Review after the periodical was given access to imagery from the commercial satellite company DigitalGlobe.
Analysts for the respected military magazine suggested that the base could be used for "expeditionary as well as defensive operations" and would allow the submarines to "break out to launch locations closer to the US".
It would now be "difficult to ignore" that China was building a naval base where it could house its nuclear forces and increase its "strategic capability considerably further afield". The development, close to sea lanes vital to Asian economies, "can only cause concern far beyond these straits".
Military analysts believe China's build-up of its forces is gaining pace but has remained hidden during preparations for the Olympic Games in Beijing. China has diverted much of its resources from the huge People's Liberation Army to the navy, air force and missile development. A Russian aircraft carrier, bought by Beijing for "leisure activities" has been picked over by naval architects who hope to "reverse engineer" the ship. Within the next five to 10 years China is expected to build up to six carriers.
While it has been known China might be developing an underground base at Sanya, if the analysis of the pictures is accurate they would be the first proof of its existence and the rapid progress made.
China has offered no public explanation for its building at Sanya. It bills the tropical island of Hainan as a new Hawaii. It is best known for hosting Miss World in recent years. But right next door, China's naval strategists are putting a different vision of international relations into effect.