This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The United States on Thursday accused China of further destabilizing the situation in the South China Sea after it test-fired ballistic missiles near the disputed Paracel Islands, in what an analyst called an apparent demonstration of China’s ability to hit ships in the open ocean.
The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported that missiles fired by the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force on Wednesday included a DF-21D, often referred to as a ‘carrier-killer’ missile for its assumed role in sinking enemy aircraft carriers, like those operated by the United States Navy.
In its statement on Thursday, the U.S. Department of Defense said it was “concerned about the People’s Republic of China (PRC) recent decision to conduct military exercises, including the firing of ballistic missiles, around the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea on August 23-29.” The Paracels are disputed between China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
“This military exercise is the latest in a long string of PRC actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea. The PRC’s actions stand in contrast to its pledge to not militarize the South China Sea and are in contrast to the United States’ vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the statement said.
The Pentagon did not specify which type of missiles had been fired during the drills – one of at least three military exercises that the Chinese military is running this week, after months of rising tensions between the U.S. and China.
The South China Morning Post said a DF-21D and a DF-26B missile were fired from two separate locations in China, citing an unnamed source close to the Chinese military. However, a U.S. defense official claimed there were actually four medium-range ballistic missiles fired into the South China Sea. According to a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists report on China’s missile forces, the DF-21D is a medium-range ballistic missile, but the DF-26B is not – it is an intermediate-range ballistic missile.
Ankit Panda, a nuclear strategy and arms control expert at the Carnegie Endowment on International Peace in Washington, D.C., said China was apparently demonstrating its ability to hit ships out in the open ocean with its missiles. He called it “a fairly rare test” and noted that China’s military only started practicing this capability last year.
“We don’t know if they aimed to strike at a stationary or moving target, but the latter in particular would be quite significant,” Panda said.
“There’s a lot of hubbub about these so-called carrier-killer missiles, but getting a missile — especially a conventional on — to hit a ship hundreds of kilometers away with any precision is very difficult. We don’t know whether this is something China is looking to now test in the field. Previous testing of this kind took place on land,” he said.
The first hint a missile test was imminent was a NOTAM – a notice prohibiting flight over a certain area for safety reasons – issued Tuesday that specified an area in the waters between the Paracels and China’s southernmost Hainan province. The notice also coincided with a notification from the Hainan Maritime Safety Administration prohibiting ships from entering the area as well.
While the U.S. sternly criticized China, Beijing made its own complaint over a U.S. warship, the USS Mustin, performing a “freedom of navigation” exercise through the Paracel Islands on Thursday.
Col. Li Huamin, a spokesperson for China’s Southern Theater Command, said in a statement that the U.S. “has repeatedly provoked troubles in the South China Sea and exercised navigational hegemony in the name of ‘freedom of navigation.’ This has seriously damaged China’s sovereignty and security interests and seriously undermined the international navigational order in the South China Sea.”
China’s current military exercises are not restricted to the South China Sea. There are concurrent drills in the Yellow and Bohai Seas, in China’s north. On Tuesday, independent researcher Duan Dang posted a picture of a missile being launched from a point in the Yellow Sea as part of these exercises to his social media account. Panda at Carnegie believes the image shows a submarine-launched cruise missile.
Additionally, China’s Ministry of Defense claimed it was also planning a military exercise somewhere in the Spratly Islands, a sprawling archipelago of rocks and reefs in the southern half of the South China Sea. China will “organize routine military exercises” at “Nansha Islands and the surrounding area,” Col. Wu Qian told reporters at a press conference Thursday. He added that the exercises were “not directed against any country.”
Nansha is China’s word for the Spratlys. Five governments have maritime or territorial claims in that area: Vietnam, China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. It’s unclear when these exercises will take place, or if they’re already underway.
Satellite imagery shows scant signs of military activity in the Spratly region, save for a convoy of 22 vehicles on the move at Subi Reef, which could possibly be part of the preparations for an exercise involving one of China’s three largest military bases in the area. Aside from Subi Reef, those bases include Fiery Cross Reef, and Mischief Reef.
A handful of what appear to be warships were at Mischief Reef on Wednesday morning, according to satellite imagery. However, China’s navy frequently stops at the massive artificial island as they move elsewhere in the region.
China’s military drills have drawn some concern in the region.
Vietnam on Wednesday criticized previous naval exercises China held in the Paracels, and demanded China halt its activity. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Le Thi Thu Hang said China’s action “complicates the situation” in what Vietnam calls the East Sea. She said it was “unfavorable” for the long-running negotiations between China and Southeast Asia on establishing a Code of Conduct to maintain peace and stability in those waters.
Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen said she was paying attention to potential “hotspots of conflict” in the South and East China Seas.
“There continue to be significant concerns over the potential for accidents, given increased military activity in the region. Therefore, we believe it would be important for all parties to maintain open lines of communications to prevent misinterpretations or miscalculations,” she told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute on Thursday in response to a question concerning the risk of conflict breaking out in Asia.
China, which is governed by the Communist Party of China, regards self-governing, democratic Taiwan as a renegade province.
Taiwan occupies Pratas Island, an atoll in the South China Sea near where China’s military is exercising northeast of the Paracels and south of Guangdong province.