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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

As China rises to great power status at an astonishing pace, its neighbors in Asia and the United States are looking for clues to its intentions. Among them, China has built an unusual naval base that has rattled nerves across Asia. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

(Soundbite of video)

JACKIE NORTHAM: A tourism video of China's Hainan Island presents an idyllic oasis in the South China Sea. Beautiful women greet visitors, waves crash onto a pristine beach, palm trees sway in the wind.

Unidentified Woman: ...enjoy a spectacular panoramic view of ...

NORTHAM: What the video does not show is an underground nuclear submarine base on the southern tip of the island. Recent satellite imagery on the Web sites of Jane's Intelligence Review and the Federation of American Scientists show large tunnels carved into the hillsides of the Sanya base. The entrance from the sea is large enough to allow submarines access to the underground facility. One image shows what appears to be a ballistic missile submarine at one of the piers.

Kurt Campbell, with the Center for a New American Security, says the Sanya base reminds him of "The Spy Who Loved Me."

(Soundbite of James Bond theme music)

Mr. KURT CAMPBELL (Center for a New American Security): The idea of an underground secret submarine base being put together by China is right out of a James Bond movie. The aspect of this that is - stoked concern is the fact that it's hidden and underground.

NORTHAM: China has been quietly but steadily modernizing its military over the past decade and has ambitions for its navy. U.S. military analysts believe China could build up to five nuclear-powered submarines capable of carrying ballistic missiles, each with the potential to deliver multiple nuclear warheads.

Rumors of a nuclear submarine base have been swirling for years. Campbell says the satellite photographs confirm those suspicions and have created anxiety in the region about China's strategic capabilities and its intentions.

Mr. CAMPBELL: The reports of this secret facility have really shook a lot of Chinese neighbors, most particularly India, but also other countries in Southeast Asia have expressed considerable anxiety about just what the Chinese are up to.

NORTHAM: India's naval chief, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, said the base was, quote, "a cause for security concern." India and China have a rivalry that goes back decades. Qin Gang, a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing, would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the base but said China's military policies are defensive.

Mr. QIN GANG (Foreign Ministry Spokesman, China): (Through translator) There's no need for other nations to express worries about this or make baseless accusations or inappropriate comments.

NORTHAM: Analysts say one of China's biggest reasons in building up its navy is to make sure sea lanes remain open so it can import desperately needed natural resources for its soaring economy. The location of the Sanya base could give China better access and dominance over disputed territories, such as the Paracel Islands and the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The naval facility will also give China more leverage over Taiwan and the submarines take China one step closer to developing a blue water navy.

Taylor Fravel, with the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the base and the submarines are part of a larger nuclear program.

Mr. TAYLOR FRAVEL (Security Studies Program, Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The deployment of the ballistic missile submarines will strengthen China's deterrent and take it closer to achieving a second strike capability. But this does not mean that China is developing or on the road towards developing the large nuclear force along the lines of the United States or Russia.

NORTHAM: Bud Cole, a professor at the National War College and the author of a book on China's military, says adding some sea-based nuclear weapons will not make China the dominant force in the region. Cole says the U.S. has an overwhelming military edge when it comes to nuclear weapons. But, he says, the underground base in China is significant.

Professor BUD COLE (National War College, Author): It's something that the United States Navy should be aware of and attempt to prepare for in our long-range planning but I don't think it's a cause for alarm.

NORTHAM: And, Cole says, China's navy has many challenges as it develops a fleet of submarines capable of carrying ballistic missiles, including the training that's required for long-range patrols at sea and the advanced technology used on board.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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