MOMBASA, Kenya, Oct. 31 (UPI) -- China disclosed this week that its nuclear submarines have started regular sea patrols, underlining Beijing's plans to build a powerful naval force to protect the strategic Indian Ocean shipping lanes that carry the oil and raw materials from the Persian Gulf and Africa that fuel China's expanding economy.
The official Xinhua news agency released photographs of what appeared to be Xia-class subs that will extend Chinese naval operations.
These are China's first-generation of nuclear-armed submarines and are now decades old. Xinhua said they were being "declassified" for the first time, probably because they're being replaced by more advanced Jin-class boats.
But the open display of the Xia-class subs, which Xinhua said "would gallop to the depths of the ocean, serving as mysterious forces igniting the sound of thunder in the deep sea," reflects the growing assertiveness of China's military forces, notably in the disputed oil-rich South China Sea.
At the same time, China's been substantially extending its stake in Africa's oil and gas fields and the continent's other strategic minerals, and the Indian Ocean ports along the East African coastline.
The Indian Ocean has long been dominated by the U.S. Navy and its aircraft carrier battle groups, and the Americans are unlikely to relinquish control of that vast maritime region, so vital to Beijing's strategic planning, anytime soon.
In the meantime, India, China's longtime rival which is now hunting the same resources that China is so avidly pursuing, is also building up its naval forces to limit Chinese encroachment.
According to some estimates, at least 60 percent of the oil exported by the Persian Gulf producers, including Iran, now goes to Asia, primarily China, India and Japan. That makes the Indian Ocean a possible arena of conflict at some point.
U.S. President Barack Obama has unveiled his "Asian pivot," refocusing U.S. military power to meet the Chinese challenge in the Pacific. Beijing says it wants a new world order in which it would be on an "equal footing" with the United States.
"Beijing has long recognized that any confrontation with the U.S. would inevitably lead to major economic crises ... and possibly a global war against the U.S.," the Defense and Foreign Affairs Group of Virginia observed in a recent analysis.
"To sustain this global conflict, the PRC would need huge quantities of hydrocarbons, rare materials, other natural resources and even agricultural products; and these could only be secured for it as a result of a China-dominated Africa."
One of the most important elements in Beijing's master plan has been to focus the flow of oil, gas and minerals from Africa to a single hub on the Indian Ocean for shipping direct to China.
Increasingly, that focus is on a proposed megaport at Lamu on Kenya's northern coast, a giant complex with 32 berths and three international airports along with a 1,000-mile railroad system and 1,100-mile road network that would transport oil and other resources from Sudan, Ethiopia and other regions in East and Central Africa.
The vast emerging gas fields off Tanzania and Mozambique to the south would also feed into this centralized node, which would include a large new oil refinery near Lamu.
Eventually, this complex, officially tagged the Lamu Port and New Transport Corridor Development to Southern Sudan and Ethiopia, or LAPSSET, would connect with a similar project on Africa's Atlantic coast.
That would embrace Nigeria in the west and Angola in the southwest. These are the major oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa.
All told, this massive endeavor would channel African oil production south of the Sahara eastward and give the Chinese effective control of much of the continent's hydrocarbon exports.
As the Americans withdraw from a 12-year conflict in Afghanistan, the United States' longest war, the Chinese are already moving into the region as part of a plan to protect their resource links.
China reportedly is taking over the new deepwater port at Gwadar on Pakistan's Indian Ocean coast, a $200 million facility Beijing built near the Persian Gulf, supposedly as the starting point for more secure overland oil and gas pipelines to western China.
That's just one of several maritime centers, no doubt with naval bases attached, that Beijing is acquiring around the Indian Ocean, a chain of ports, intelligence facilities and listening posts dubbed China's "string of pearls."