Pentagon Warns China Over Ballistic Missile Launches in South China Sea as Tensions Escalate

August 28, 2020 Updated: August 28, 2020

The Pentagon said Beijing has further destabilized the situation in the South China Sea, after it test-launched ballistic missiles during military exercises in the contested waters.

“Conducting military exercises over disputed territory in the South China Sea is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintaining stability,” the Pentagon said in a statement issued on Aug. 27.

The Pentagon statement said Beijing fired these missiles around the Paracel Islands, a disputed archipelago in the region, while conducting exercises, but did not specify which date, how many had been fired, or the types of missiles.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is conducting exercises in the South China Sea from Aug. 23 to 29.

“This military exercise is the latest in a long string of PRC [People’s Republic of China] actions to assert unlawful maritime claims and disadvantage its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea,” the Pentagon said.

On Thursday, the U.S. Navy stated on Twitter that its guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin conducted “routine operations in the waters” near the Paracel Islands to ensure a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.”

The Chinese regime has amped up its aggression in the region as the United States has simultaneously sought to counter its threats.

Islands, reefs, and rocks in the strategic waterway are claimed by a number of countries, including Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Beijing has used the “nine-dash line” to proclaim sovereignty over 90 percent of the South China Sea, despite a United Nations legal judgment in 2016 that refuted Beijing’s claims.

In recent years, Beijing has sought to bolster its claims by building military outposts on artificial islands and reefs in the region. It has also deployed coast guard ships and Chinese fishing boats to intimidate foreign vessels, block access to waterways, and seize shoals and reefs.

On July 13, the United States formally rejected Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the claims were “completely unlawful” and that China was conducting a “campaign of bullying to control” the area.

This week, the U.S. Commerce Department placed 24 Chinese state-owned companies on a trade blacklist, citing their involvement in militarizing the South China Sea. The State Department also announced that it will impose visa restrictions on Chinese citizens responsible for such endeavors.

Some China experts said that though Beijing is acting tough, it likely will not want to engage in a true conflict with the United States.

Chinese Missiles

On Thursday, Japanese media NHK reported that China fired four ballistic missiles toward the South China Sea on Wednesday, citing unnamed U.S. military sources. NHK stated the missiles fell between China’s island province of Hainan and Paracel Islands.

Meanwhile, South China Morning Post, citing an unnamed source close to the Chinese military, said Beijing fired two missiles, a DF-26B missile and a DF-21D missile, on Wednesday.

According to the Pentagon’s 2019 annual report to Congress, the DF-26, a nuclear and conventional capable ballistic missile, has a range of about 4,000 km (2,485 miles), and the DF-21D, an anti-ship ballistic missile, can exceed a range of 1,500 km (932 miles).

Pentagon official Alan R. Shaffer previously said at a military conference in March 2019 that the DF-26 can reach Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific and a major resupply station for U.S. forces.

Chinese officials have kept mum about the missile launches. Asked about the Pentagon’s statement during a daily briefing on Friday afternoon, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian did not comment on the launches but accused the United States of being the “destroyer and troublemaker” of stability in the South China Sea.

The day prior, Wu Qian, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, said at a press conference that the exercises “are not directed at any country” but made no mention of the missile launches.

Military Exercises

Concurrently, Beijing is conducting military drills in three other waterways near China: the Bohai Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea.

Wu Qian also addressed at a Thursday press conference the PLA’s military exercises in Taiwan earlier this month and the guided-missile destroyer USS Mustin passing through the Taiwan straits last week.

“We continually organized the combat drills in the Taiwan straits targeting foreign forces, targeting the Taiwan independence separatist forces,” Wu claimed.

Beijing claims Taiwan as part of its territory despite it being a self-ruled island with its own democratically-elected government, military, and currency. The United States has continually sailed its military vessels near Taiwan, in addition to selling arms, to assist the island in defending against Beijing’s military provocations.

In the past, the Chinese regime has used similar language to accuse the United States of supporting a split between the mainland and Taiwan. On Aug. 10, China’s hawkish state-run media Global Times ran an editorial that said the U.S. was using Taiwan “as its pawn to contain the Chinese mainland.”

On Aug. 13, Global Times published an article saying that China’s military drills in the Taiwan straits were aimed at deterring “the provocative and dangerous connection between the island [Taiwan] and the U.S.”

The article quoted a Chinese analyst, who warned that “if the U.S. and Taiwan secessionists go further, the PLA could take more countermeasures, including live-fire missile drills east of Taiwan island and near Guam.”

US Plane

This week, the Chinese regime also accused the United States of “trespassing” its no-fly zone when a U-2 reconnaissance plane flew over combat drills in the Bohai Sea.

Wu called the U-2 flight a “provocative” action during an Aug. 25 press conference.

The U.S. Pacific Air Forces, in a statement to CNN, stated the U-2 flight “was conducted in the Indo-Pacific area of operations and within the accepted international rules and regulations governing aircraft flights.”

Taiwanese lawmaker Wang Ting-yu said in a video posted on his Facebook page on Thursday that he believed China’s decision to fire ballistic missiles was to “hit back” at the United States for the reconnaissance plane flyover.

State-run newspaper People’s Daily also reported that a U.S. P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft entered the South China Sea via the Bashi Channel—a waterway between the Philippines and Taiwan—on Thursday.

The day prior, a RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft had entered the South China Sea via the same channel. And on Tuesday, a Challenger 650 reconnaissance aircraft also passed through the same area, according to Chinese officials.

U.S.-based China affairs commentator Tang Jingyuan said despite Beijing’s recent show of muscle and rhetoric, the Chinese regime is not prepared for war.

In a phone interview, Tang analyzed that Beijing chose not to send out fighters to intercept the U.S. reconnaissance aircrafts that flew over the Bohai Sea and South China Sea. In addition, Chinese state-run media did not prominently publish reports about these incidents, suggesting that Beijing did not want to make a big splash about the actions.

Reactions

Several nations voiced concerns over China’s actions. According to Japanese newspaper Mainichi, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, in response to a question about China’s missile launches at a press conference on Thursday, stated: “Our country is strongly opposed to whatever act that heightens tensions in the South China Sea.”

Taiwan, which sees China as a hostile neighbor that threatens the island’s sovereignty, has for years expressed concerns about China’s military activities in the region. On Thursday, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, speaking at a virtual forum held by the think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute, expressed concerns about “accidental” conflicts in the region.

“We expect and hope that Beijing will continue to exercise restraint, consistent with their obligations as a major regional power,” Tsai said.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) took to her Twitter account to call for more action to counter Beijing.

“We will continue to conduct multilateral exercises and freedom of navigation operations in the Indo-Pacific waters & will not be intimidated by China’s growing aggression,” Blackburn said.

Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) issued a statement applauding the Trump administration’s move to sanction Chinese companies and individuals involved in South China Sea aggressions.

“It is crucial that U.S. investors and businesses are aware that PRC companies involved in the militarization of the South China Sea maintain a presence in our capital markets,” Risch stated.

This article has been updated to clarify Wu Qian’s comments regarding drills in the Taiwan straits.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer