Did China Really Lose a Nuclear Submarine?

No, military experts say. It’s fake news pushed a U.K. tabloid and anti-China media

8 mins read
People visit the Tian'anmen Square after a flag-raising ceremony to celebrate the 74th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 1, 2023. (Xinhua/Ju Huanzong)

One of the challenges of reporting on China, for the media and intelligence agencies alike, is sifting through the constant river of mis- and disinformation stimulated by the habitual secrecy of the Chinese Communist Party and exacerbated by its most rabid enemies. 

The problem goes back to Mao’s time, when the country was basically  “closed” to all but friendly visitors. Despite its 1972 rapprochement with the United States, the practice has continued under successive leaders, more recently by China-sponsored foreign vloggers who strive to present a positive view of the People’s Republic, “telling China’s story well.” Likewise,  opponents of China never waste an opportunity to exaggerate Beijing’s problems, with some promoting conspiracy theories, a situation aggravated by the current leadership’s push to hinder or make illegal the gathering of even the most mundane of business and academic data.  

Now comes a series of reports, repeating articles last week from the UK tabloid the Daily Mail, saying a Chinese submarine crashed in the Yellow Sea on Aug. 21 with the loss of all 55 aboard. Citing “a secret UK report,” it identified the vessel as a type 093,  dubbed by NATO a “Shang class” submarine.

Military authorities privately say it’s fake news.

The Daily Mail, citing “intelligence reports,” did not name an exact location for the incident and noted that there was no independent confirmation available, but it said that 22 officers, 7 officer cadets, 9 petty officers, and 17 sailors died from an “onboard accident,” including the captain, who it identified as Col. Xue Yongpeng. It said the sub ran into an anchor-and-chain style “trap” used by the Chinese Navy to ensnare U.S. and its allies’ submersibles. Over a six hour period, the sub’s  battery and air treatment systems failed, it said, causing the asphyxiation of all aboard.

second report from the tabloid on October 6 cited an unnamed “dissident” who claimed to have “an update from the Central Military Commission.” He claimed that the news of the sub’s fate had leaked to the British via an Apple Watch bugged by Britain’s MI6, and that this had led to an investigation by the Chinese side. 

Close observers cast doubt on the reports, largely ignored by mainstream U.S. media. For starters, the photos posted by the Daily Mail and Newsweek did not match their description of the vessel, according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the American Federation of Scientists.

“Rumors continue,” Kristensen wrote on X (formerly Twitter) “this time based on alleged UK intelligence report—that China lost a nuclear-powered attack submarine in the South China Sea. Note that it involves (if it happened) [it was] a 093 attack sub, not the 094 missile sub seen in some of the pics.”  

Referring to the anchor and chain trap, the military affairs author Iain Ballantyne commented that “this story, including [the] cause of the submarine crew’s alleged demise, [has been] around for a while and surfaces every now & then. 

“Who knows?” he added. “The particulars explained here do not quite add up.” 

Ballantyne cracked that the “supposed  trap [was] very 1900s,” but in Oct. 2021, the USS Connecticut, a fast attack sub, may have blundered into one of the devices in the South China Sea. The Navy originally said it crashed on a “sea mount.” It later changed its story to describe it as an “object.”

Another wave of critical remarks rolled in on social media, often from commentators whose real names were obscured behind aliases. “The captain of the Chinese PLA Navy submarine ‘093-417’ is understood to be among the deceased, as were 21 other officers,” wrote someone whose Twitter handle, @benreuter_IMINT, suggested a familiarity with photographic intelligence. “Never heard of ‘417’,” he went on. “Confusing: 55 death(s)—submarine sunk. Usually they have more than 55 crew.”

“Yes, there are many odd and missing pieces in this rumor,” Kristensen responded.

The water was too shallow for the sub to actually sink, some said  (even though the site of the catastrophe was never really confirmed, and submarines do traverse these waters). They also mocked the idea that a nuclear submarine would have a battery system, even though they do. 

Former New York Times investigative reporter Christopher Drew, coauthor of the monumental Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage, told SpyTalk, “It does seem improbable. You could have a problem like this with oxygen on a diesel sub, but it shouldn’t be an issue on a nuclear sub. But as we saw with the Kursk and other Russian subs, new and old, crazy things can happen.”

News of the alleged loss flooded the anti-China Indian media and, of course, sites controlled by the anti-communist Chinese Falun Gong movement. 

Origin Story

Others were quick to claim they had the story first. On Aug. 21,  an anonymous  Chinese anti-communist vlogger using the pseudonym “Lu De” posted the first video about the alleged incident, claiming that “six hours ago, a type 09III nuclear-powered attack submarine of the CCP had an accident while performing a mission in the Taiwan Strait” and that “all submarine officers died.” The host went on to describe publicly available specifications of the Shang-class boat, which he said was upgraded with foreign technology. 

On X/Twitter, Lu De and another Chinese anti-communist poster, Dr. Li-Meng Yan, an “independent virologist” who has hammered the Wuhan Lab’s alleged connections to the spread of Covid-19, claimed that the Daily Mail had “verified our intelligence” about the initial incident and the Apple watch, maintaining that it had been given to the Chinese officer by a paramour in England. They also changed the location of the crash from the Taiwan Strait, in their initial reporting in August, to the Yellow Sea. 

“Lu De” is reportedly connected to erstwhile Chinese billionaire and fugitive Guo Wengui (aka Miles Guo, Miles Kwok), a self-styled anti-Beijing “whistleblower” who is a close associate of rightwing conspiracies peddler and Donald Trump acolyte Steve Bannon. In 2017, China posted an Interpol notice for Guo’s detention on corruption allegations. 

The U.S. mainstream media generally ignored the submarine incident. Newsweek published a cautious story on Oct. 6 quoting Sam Tangredi, director of the U.S. Naval War College’s Institute for Future Warfare Studies, as saying, “I don’t know if the incident occurred. The Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army Navy are not willing to admit mistakes.” He noted also that “Taiwan authorities have stated that they have no evidence that the incident did occur, and they would not have an incentive to hide it.” 

Other analysts agreed. “This Daily Mail article is not credible,” Drew Thompson, a former Defense Department official, told Newsweek.  Beijing has denied the reports.

Meanwhile, the Taiwan outlet Up Media took the subject in a slightly different direction, alleging that the “accident” was caused by an exploding torpedo. An Asia-based analyst who spoke to SpyTalk on condition of anonymity pointed out that the stories in Up Media were written by a correspondent previously based in Beijing with many contacts there, implying that the details may be mixed up and partly unreliable, but that there might actually have been a serious PRC naval accident of some sort south of Dalian. 

The Chinese-language Liuyuan Network news site also picked up this story on Sept. 10. An anonymous blogger asserted that the sub in question was based in Qingdao, on the Yellow Sea coast. It claimed that there was an explosion—not of a torpedo, but of a YJ-18 cruise missile.

Liuyuan’s affiliation or backers could not be learned. It lists a Sugarland, Texas-based mobile phone number that does not answer.

Meanwhile a Vietnamese journalist, Duan Dang, published some hazy photos of the area south of Dalian that he said came from the Liaoning Maritime Safety Administration and showed that the PLA Navy had created an exclusion zone there for what looked like—to him—a rescue attempt.

SpyTalk could confirm neither the photos nor the exclusion zone. Clicking on the alleged URLs for the Liaoning Maritime Safety Administration returned the message: “ERROR: ACCESS DENIED.”

Nobody else reported evidence of Chinese ships rushing to the rescue.

“If it suffered a casualty as severe as that reported, it would likely generate a rapid response from a number of other Chinese naval vessels, both for security and search and rescue support,” said a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer who spoke to SpyTalk on condition of anonymity.  “The departure and other activities of those types of vessels would likely be observable by classified and open source intelligence.”

That’s not happened.

 “Large nuclear submarines generally don’t just disappear without multiple indicators, and its reported position would be reachable for rescue and salvage operations, especially in the waters of the Yellow Sea” where depths are typically only 10-40 meters,” this person added.  “There would be a number of Chinese naval ships responding to such an incident, and that much naval presence would be detectable, both in their absence from home ports, and their presence in the area of the reported accident.”  

The retired officer also pointed out that open source providers have changed the calculus of keeping secrets in today’s surveillance landscape. 

“The availability of open source satellite imagery intelligence by providers like Maxar Technologies and other source reporting about increased activity in the area would be expected—as has been demonstrated throughout the Ukraine conflict. Indeed, it took only a week for ABC News and CNN, using imagery provided by Planet.com and Maxar, to show photos of the Russian ships leaving Sevastopol after attacks by Ukraine.

With the media attention generated by the alleged Chinese sub incident, commercial satellite photos of a rescue effort should have surfaced by now. The weather in nearby coastal Weihai and Dalian during August and September was a mix of clear and cloudy days, which would have allowed such overhead observation.

Missing Persons

There’s been no sign of the alleged commander of the stricken sub, Col. Xue Yongpeng, who was lavishly profiled in the Chinese press in late 2021.

That, too, is odd. In 2003, when the entire crew of 70 in an older underwater craft died  off the coast of the Liaodong Peninsula in northeast China, CCTV 4  (Chinese Central Television) covered the story and featured Chinese leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao giving condolences to relatives of the dead, promising to modernize the PLA Navy.

Analysts will be watching closely to see if the purported investigations of China’s North Sea Fleet commander Wang Dazhong and other unnamed officers in People’s Liberation Army Navy logistics materialize—or whether they merely disappear from public view, a common occurrence under Xi Jinping.  A  report from RFA on  Oct.9 added that a Taiwan official believes that Admiral Wang Dazhong was sacked over the alleged incident.

Defense Minister and General Li Shangfu has not been seen for six weeks, which is to say, eight days after the alleged submarine incident.  A combat veteran,  Liu Zhenli, who was involved with border fights with Vietnamese troops in 1986,  has emerged as his replacement, according to a Reuters report Thursday.

“There is much less tolerance for bad news now,” compared to the period before Xi Jinping’s rise, a Western former senior intelligence official told SpyTalk. 

Whether this PLA Navy submarine was lost—or  ever existed—or another sub crashed elsewhere, the rumor mill highlights problems that continue to plague the Chinese military, including corruption issues that have resulted in the purge of senior officers in the PLA Rocket Force, and may extend to other commands

“If the story proves to be true,” the former official added, “ it will, combined with what has been happening in the Strategic Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force, simply add to the perception that PLA reform has a long way to go amid persistent signs of high-level corruption. And it is highly embarrassing for Xi that his hand-picked protégés are the ones who have let him down.”

Most other sources consulted by SpyTalk on the 093 submarine reports have opted not to comment, even off the record, in part because reporting incidents involving China’s military have the potential to further disrupt relations between China,  the U.S. and its allies, and partly because critical intelligence sources and methods may have been used to check the veracity of the story. 

The U.S. Navy declined to comment on the alleged—now evidently spurious—stories.

“As a matter of policy, we don’t discuss intelligence assessments,” a spokesperson said.

Source: SpyTalk

Matt Brazil

Matt Brazil is a former US Army officer, diplomat, corporate security investigator, and adjunct professor of modern Chinese history. He spent most of my career in East and South Asia. He is the co-author of Chinese Communist Espionage, An Intelligence Primer. He is a contributing editor at SpyTalk.co and a Research Fellow with the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC.

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