The Pentagon has blasted as “disturbing” a Chinese missile launch from its man-made islands in the disputed South China Sea, saying that the test was meant to intimidate other claimants to the strategic waterway.
The move startled analysts, who characterized it as a rarity — if not a first — in the South China Sea, home to crucial international shipping lanes.
“Of course the Pentagon was aware of the Chinese missile launch from the man-made structures in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands,” Pentagon spokesman Dave Eastburn told The Japan Times, calling it “truly disturbing.”
Eastburn said the move was a “direct contradiction” to a 2015 pledge by Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting with then-U.S. President Barack Obama not to further militarize its man-made outposts in the South China Sea.
“I’m not going to speak on behalf of all the sovereign nations in the region, but I’m sure they agree that the PRC’s behavior is contrary to its claim to want to bring peace to the region and obviously actions like this are coercive acts meant to intimidate other (South China Sea) claimants,” Eastburn said, using the acronym for China’s formal name, the People’s Republic of China.
Media reports citing U.S. officials speaking on the condition of anonymity said China had tested multiple anti-ship ballistic missiles over the weekend. The tests were first reported by NBC News, and could have included systems like the DF-21D or DF-26. The DF-21D is known euphemistically as the “carrier killer” for its ability to target moving aircraft carrier strike groups from long-range, land-based mobile launchers. The DF-26 has been labeled the “Guam killer” because it was China’s first conventionally armed ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. island territory and the key military installation there.
Beijing previously moved land-based anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), such as the YJ-62 and YJ-12B, to Chinese-held islets in the region, a move the U.S. condemned.
China’s Maritime Safety Administration had issued a navigation warning, cordoning off a large swatch of part of the South China Sea for military drills running through July 3, spurring speculation that it would test a ballistic missile in the area.
That notice gave few details other than saying the exercises would be held square in the middle of the crucial waterway and would end on Wednesday. It gave the location of the drills as between the contested Paracel and Spratly island groups.
Experts said this was the furthest south in the waterway to date where the Chinese military has conducted a major wargame.
“This … means the (Chinese People’s Liberation Army) is preparing for a major confrontation this far in the South China Sea and really training for such an eventuality,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the South China Sea, including the construction of man-made islands — such as those in the Paracels and Spratlys — some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry. The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway, which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year. The U.S. military regularly conducts “freedom of navigation operations” (FONOPs) in the area.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the waters, where the U.S., Chinese, Japanese and some Southeast Asian navies also routinely operate.
Neither Japan nor the U.S. have claims in the waters, but both allies have routinely stated their commitment to a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Beijing says it has deployed the advanced weaponry to the islets for defensive purposes, but some experts say this is part of a concerted bid to cement de facto control of the waters.
The United States conducted its most recent FONOP late last month, sailing a warship near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a strategic flash point in the South China Sea claimed by China, the Philippines and Taiwan.
Koh said the Chinese missile test was “definitely a show of force.”
He also said the timing was not coincidental, as there had been a flurry of extra-regional naval activities in the area, including training by the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier, the Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo helicopter carrier and even the French carrier Charles de Gaulle beginning last month through early this week.
“I believe the Chinese message is more intended for the Americans primarily, and to a lesser extent for the U.S. allies such as Japan — the (People’s Liberation Army) is ready to retaliate against any provocations,” Koh said. “Less subtly, Beijing wanted these powers to know their limits in flexing muscle in the (South China Sea) and wanted them to always be alert to the ability of the PLA to strike deep and hard in the area if necessary.”