China Submarine Accident: Taiwan’s Top Official Acknowledges PLA-Navy Sub Accident That “Killed” 55 Crew

A Taiwanese official has acknowledged that a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarine met with an accident last year, months after unconfirmed reports started swirling about a PLAN Type 093 submarine’s sinking near the Taiwan Strait.

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Last August, unverified reports started to surface on social media suggesting that a Chinese submarine had crashed on its transit through the Taiwan Strait. By October 2023, reports in British media citing UK intelligence stated that the Chinese submarine, a nuclear-powered Type 093, met with a serious mishap as it hit a “chain and anchor” trap intended to snare Western vessels lurking off China’s Shandong province.

Some reports that followed the initial reportage alleged that the submarine had sunk in the waters and that the crew reportedly suffocated after a “catastrophic failure” of the sub’s oxygen system. While it was previously believed that the accident had occurred in the Taiwan Strait, later reports suggested that the Chinese submarine sank in the Yellow Sea.

When the unverified reports first started swirling on Platform X (previously Twitter) in August, the former spokesman of the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense (MND), Sun Li-fang, stated that the country’s combined intelligence and surveillance system had not found any indications of a submarine accident.

Taiwan Acknowledges Chinese Submarine Accident

Major General Huang Wenqi, assistant deputy director of the Intelligence Office of the General Staff Headquarters of Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense, said he would not comment as the relevant information was “absolutely confidential.” He added: “It is not convenient to disclose because of the sensitivity involved.”

The Taiwanese MND’s stance started to change shortly. A month later, in September, the MND said, “This matter concerns sensitivity. It’s not for us to comment.”

However, the latest development that comes amid heightened tensions between the two sides, Taiwan National Security Bureau chief Tsai Ming-Yen finally admitted that a PLA Navy Type-09III Shang-class SSN (nuclear-powered general-purpose submarine) met with an accident last year, a local publication reported on May 29.

The admission was reportedly made when National Security Director Cai Mingyan and relevant ministries were invited by the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Commission of the Legislative Yuan to present a project report on the cross-strait situation following the Taiwan President’s inauguration.

When asked by Wang Dingyu, a member of the Democratic Progressive Party, whether the National Security Bureau had an understanding of the alleged sinking of the Chinese vessel last year, Chi Minyan said he had observed the matter closely since it happened at the time China was conducting military drills in the strait, which had direct implications for the island’s security.

Cai said that it was discovered that the shipwreck’s location was outside of the zone of Chinese military drills, and the accident’s cause was still unknown. China had since completed the essential salvage of the vessel, he further told the lawmakers.

Cai went on to say that the Type 093 accident was not the only one to occur in recent times. He said that before Chinese drills began in Taiwan recently, a small Chinese research drone likely launched from a ship, crashed in southwestern Taiwan. While China sent ships to recover the drone, the area was not blocked by the People’s Liberation Army(PLA). EurAsian Times does not have any information about this accident.

This may be a vindication for OSINT (Open source intelligence) and naval analysts who examined the issue and noted that a massive tragedy involving the Type 093 nuclear-powered submarine had occurred somewhere in the region.

Reports Sparked Concern, China Stays Mum

The reports of the mishap concerning the Type 093 or Shang Class nuclear submarines, one of the most potent submarines in the PLA-Navy’s fleet, started on August 21, 2023. Some reports suggested that the entire crew onboard the vessel perished. China did not substantiate any of the reports. The PLAN has six Shang-class nuclear-powered submarines.

In the aftermath of the incident, the experts contacted by the EurAsian Times predicted that Beijing would attempt to conceal the incident, given its propensity for asserting its power. They also mentioned that such events nonetheless tend to come to light.

Vice Admiral A B Singh, the former commander-in-chief of both the Eastern and Western Naval Command, told the EurAsian Times, “The answer is it can hide it, but for how long—many Chinese disasters will give you a clue of how news is disseminated in a delayed manner.”

Another Indian Navy official who did not want to be named said such situations are impossible to conceal for long, particularly when there have been casualties. If it had sunk, intelligence services would have this knowledge. It might just be a matter of time until it enters the public domain.

“If the submarine was submerged when it sank, then yes (it would evade satellites). But there are so many other ways through which a submarine’s absence would be felt. And if the mishap has happened in Taiwan Strait, its depth is shallow and, in most parts divers, can also go down and investigate if the area is known,” the official added.

Type 093 Shang-class submarines
Type 093 Shang-class submarines

While China has rarely acknowledged its casualties or accidents, tragedies involving submarines are fairly common. For instance, a US nuclear attack submarine crashed into an object in the South China Sea earlier in 2021. These incidents are dangerous, nonetheless.

Nuclear submarines, one of the most lethal weapon platforms in the world, are susceptible to underwater accidents that result in nuclear leaks, whether they are nuclear-powered ballistic submarines (SSBN) or nuclear-powered submarines (SSN).

Over the 200 years (from 1774-1985) that submarine operations have been conducted, there have been over 1,750 accidents. Of these, 1,448 were lost due to enemy action, and 302 were lost in accidents. A number of these accidents have involved nuclear submarines. The causes involving nuclear-powered submarines vary, but nearly half of the accidents include problems with onboard nuclear reactors.

Unless the Chinese Ministry of Defense releases details about the incident, any claims regarding the cause of the accident and its aftermath would be purely speculative.