2019/57, 8 July 2019
Reports that China conducted one or more ballistic missile tests in the South China Sea in early July highlights the growing strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing in maritime Southeast Asia. The tests run counter to China’s narrative that the situation in the South China Sea is stable and calm.
Prior to the five-day test period, China declared two areas of the South China Sea—one north of the Paracel Islands and one north of the Spratly Islands—off-limits to ships and aircraft. It remains unclear, however, whether the missiles were launched into the sea from mainland China or from one of China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratlys. Most likely they were fired from the mainland by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) which operates China’s land-based nuclear and conventional missiles.
The type of missiles that were launched is also unclear, though attention has focused on either the Dongfeng 26 (DF-26) intermediate range ballistic missile, which has a range of over 4,000 kilometres, or the Dongfeng 21D (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) which has a range in excess of 1,500 kilometres. According to the Pentagon’s 2019 assessment of China’s armed forces, both the DF-26 and DF-21D are capable of attacking ships in the Western Pacific and South China Sea. The DF-21D in particular has been dubbed the “carrier killer”.
If the reports are true, it will be the first time China has tested ballistic missiles in the South China Sea. During 2016-18, China temporarily deployed shorter-range anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles to Woody Island in the Paracels and three of its manmade islands in the Spratlys.
The Pentagon called the tests “disturbing” and criticised them as contradicting President Xi Jinping’s pledge to President Barack Obama in September 2015 not to militarize the South China Sea and as an act of coercion against the other claimants.
China’s Ministry of National Defence has confirmed that the PLA conducted a series of live-fire tests near Hainan Island but said Western media reports were inaccurate.
The tests were almost certainly designed to send a message to the United States (and perhaps even Japan) that the PLA increasingly has the capabilities to launch attacks from the mainland against major surface warships in the South and East China Seas, including aircraft carriers. No Southeast Asian claimant currently operates such large vessels. Moreover, it is probably not a coincidence that the tests occurred two weeks after the American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and Japanese helicopter carrier JS Izumo conducted a combined deployment in the South China Sea.
While US warships have limited defences against Chinese ASBMs, locating, targeting and destroying an aircraft carrier would present a difficult task for the PLARF. Nevertheless, US analysts will be studying the recent tests carefully to determine China’s ability to conduct long-range precision strikes against moving targets at sea, and how this may affect the US Navy’s operational deployments within the first and second island chains.
Dr Ian Storey is Senior Fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.
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