BEIJING – An accident on a Chinese diesel-powered submarine killed all 70 sailors aboard, the government said Friday, in a rare admission of a military disaster.
The accident occurred “recently” in the Yellow Sea off China’s northeast coast, the official Xinhua News Agency said in a brief report that didn’t explain how the sailors died. It said the vessel had been towed back to an unidentified port.
Despite its lack of details, the report appeared to be an attempt by China’s government to appear more open. The government of newly installed President Hu Jintao has been promising more candor as it fights an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that has killed at least 181 people in China.
The report was the first time China has announced a fatal submarine accident, said Bernard Cole, a professor at the U.N. National War College in Washington and a specialist on the Chinese navy.
“There have been rumors going around about the loss of submarines, but this is the first fatal accident that I know of,” Cole said.
Nevertheless, the Chinese military did not comment on the accident Friday night. Xinhua said former President Jiang Zemin, who remained chairman of the commission that runs the military after stepping down as China’s leader, had sent condolences to families of the crew.
Russian President Vladimir Putin sent Hu a telegram expressing condolences. Putin’s government was criticized for its slow response to the sinking of the nuclear submarine Kursk in 2000.
The Chinese submarine was on an exercise when the accident occurred and “because of a mechanical malfunction, the 70 crew members on board died,” Xinhua said.
Foreign military analysts said it would be unusual for an accident to kill everyone aboard a submarine while still allowing the Chinese military to retrieve the vessel.
They said that suggested possible causes ranging from a sinking in the shallow Yellow Sea after a collision to a disaster that flooded the vessel with toxic fumes.
Michael McGinty, an expert on the Chinese navy from the Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies in London, said that the accident probably happened while the submarine was on the surface. If the accident happened when the vessel was under water, it was less likely that China could have recovered it, said McGinty, a former British submariner.
“For an accident to have been so catastrophic when the submarine was on the surface, I find it a very mysterious thing,” he said.
McGinty said that the submarine’s batteries might have leaked acid that mixed with seawater, creating toxic chlorine gas. Or the torpedoes might have leaked propellant that poisoned the crew, he said.
The accident could have occurred as long ago as March, said Cole, a former U.S. Navy antisubmarine warfare officer.
“There have been exercises going on in the Yellow Sea over the past two months,” he said. “This boat could have been involved in those exercises and gone down over a month ago.”
The announcement came during a long weekend for the May Day holiday. Philip Saunders, an East Asian specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California, said the government might have been trying to reduce its impact by releasing it when many Chinese were on vacation.
“You can keep it secret for a while, but not forever,” Saunders said.
Xinhua said the vessel had hull number 361, which analysts said would make it a Ming-class submarine — a vessel based on a decades-old Soviet design and used for patrols and coastal defense.
Ming-class subs usually carry a crew of 50, suggesting that some aboard were technicians or staff officers, Cole said.
China began building the Ming-class subs in the 1970s, and they are obsolete by modern standards, according to the Federation of American Scientists. China is believed to have as many as 19 Ming-class submarines.
China’s submarine fleet includes 66 boats, most of them aging diesel-electric vessels, McGinty said. He said the fleet suffers from a chronic lack of money, training and maintenance.
But the Chinese are aggressively updating their fleet with Russia-made Kilo-class diesel-electric subs. Cole said they also were believed to be building a nuclear submarine with Russian help.
“The submarine force is the most potent part of the Chinese navy,” Cole said.
Despite the difficulty of maintaining a fleet, subs are valuable because they are hard to detect, Cole said. In a conflict over Taiwan or some other confrontation, he said, “China’s ability to field a force of even a dozen submarines could pose a big problem for any other naval force.”