Beijing has upped the ante by firing “carrier killer” ballistic missiles into the South China Sea in what it calls a “warning to the United States”.
China says two missiles of different types were launched on Thursday. Both were ballistic, meaning a large rocket boosts its warhead into space before it separates and glides back down to its target. As they travel at more than 10 times the speed of sound, the warheads are much harder to intercept than cruise missiles.
One missile, a DF-26B, was reportedly launched from the northern Chinese province of Qinghai. The second, a DF-21D, was fired from the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Both converged on a simulated target in the South China Sea off the coast of Hainan Island.
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“This is China’s response to the potential risks brought by the increasingly frequent incoming US warplanes and military vessels in the South China Sea,” the Hong Kong-based (and now subject to Beijing’s strict national security laws) South China Morning Post reports an unnamed source as saying.
“The US continues to test China’s bottom line in Taiwan and South China Sea issues, and this pushed China to showcase its military strength to let Washington know that even US aircraft carriers cannot flex their full muscle near China’s coast,” military analyst Song Zhongping added.
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The People’s Liberation Army is in the middle of conducting an unprecedented number of large-scale military exercises at four different locations. Several are close to Taiwan.
Observing the activities were a US guided-missile destroyer and a Cold War-era U-2 high altitude spy plane.
“The US has continued to provoke troubles, seriously undermining China’s sovereignty and security, and seriously damaging relations between the two countries and their armed forces,” Beijing’s Ministry of Defence spokesperson Wu Qian told reporters. “China will not dance to the tune of the US.”
GAME OF CHICKEN
A day before the missile test, Beijing protested the incursion of a US U-2 spy plane over a live-fire exercise in the Bohai Gulf east of Beijing.
“This was a naked act of provocation,” Wu said on Tuesday. The overflight had “seriously interfered in normal exercise activities” and “severely incurred the risk of misjudgment and even of bringing about an unintended air-sea incident.”
Then, on Thursday, a US RC-135S reconnaissance aircraft monitored China’s ballistic missile launch. This aircraft carries a wide variety of sensors intended to gather as much data as possible to analyse potential threats.
A US air force spokesperson said the plane “followed all of the accepted rules and regulations governing the use of international airspace and with due regard for the safety of all vessels and aircraft operating in the area”.
Also on Thursday, the guided missile destroyer USS Mustin – a ship designed to shoot down ballistic missiles – passed through the Paracel Islands between China and Vietnam as the war-games unfolded nearby.
PLA spokesman Senior Colonel Li Huamin told the Global Times his forces had summoned air and naval vessels to “warn it away”.
“This has seriously undermined China’s sovereignty and security interests as well as the international navigation order in the South China Sea,” Li said. “We urge the United States to immediately stop such provocative acts, strictly control naval and air military operations, and strictly restrict the behaviour of frontline naval and air forces so as to avoid any accidents.”
He insisted Beijing had “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters.”
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan dispute this.
Washington has contradicted Beijing’s claims that only two missiles were fired. It says its forces detected four ballistic launches in the region.
The DF-21 and DF-26 missiles have featured heavily in recent Chinese military propaganda. They’re touted as weapons capable of dominating the Pacific Ocean, with even the enormous nuclear-powered aircraft carriers of the United States not being out of their reach.
Beijing’s intent is to intimidate Washington to such an extent that it no longer sails its fleets with impunity through the South and East China Seas. The missiles also have a much greater range than the F-35 and F-18 fighters aboard US aircraft carriers, making their ability to intervene in any crisis a much more risky prospect.
The DF-26 has a range of some 4000km. It can carry either nuclear or conventional warheads.
The DF-21 can reach about 1800km.
In comparison, the strike radius of a US F-35C – once it takes off from its aircraft carrier’s deck – is believed to be in the vicinity of 1100km.
LINES IN THE SEA
Senior Colonel Zhang Chunhui said the PLA would “stay on high alert and take all necessary measures to fight against provocations and protect national sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
But the Pentagon says it will continue to monitor Beijing’s military activities and deter any expansionist acts.
“This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognised in international law by challenging the unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and also by challenging China’s claim to straight baselines enclosing the Paracel Islands,” a US navy spokesman said.
“Unlawful maritime claims in the South China Sea pose a serious threat to the freedom of the seas, including the freedoms of navigation and overflight, of unimpeded trade and commerce, and of economic opportunity for South China Sea littoral nations.”
Hanoi has also been disturbed by Chinese ships and aircraft massing in vast areas of water suddenly declared “no go zones” to fishing and commercial vessels.
“The fact China has repeatedly performed drills in the area of Hoang Sa violates Vietnam’s sovereignty over the islands, goes against the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) … as well as the maintenance of peace, stability and co-operation across the waters,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Le Thi Thu Hang said on Wednesday.
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel