China this past week conducted a flight test of an anti-ship ballistic missile into the South China Sea, just as the Trump administration was unveiling new sanctions on Chinese officials over militarization in the disputed waterway.
The test of two missiles, a DF-26 and a DF-21D — road-mobile missiles with enough precision to strike a ship at sea — landed in the sea near Hainan Island and the Paracels, according to Chinese press reports.
Disclosure of the missile firing followed the earlier announcement by the State Department that the Commerce Department had imposed economic sanctions on 24 Chinese companies for their role in militarizing disputed islands in the South China Sea. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also announced sanctions against Chinese executives of companies involved in building up the disputed islands and deploying military weapons and facilities on them.
China has built up some 3,200 acres of disputed islands in the past eight years and in 2018 began deploying anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles on some of the islands.
“The United States, China’s neighbors, and the international community have rebuked [China’s] sovereignty claims to the South China Sea and have condemned the building of artificial islands for the Chinese military,” said Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. “The entities designated today have played a significant role in China’s provocative construction of these artificial islands and must be held accountable.”
The South China Morning Post reported that the DF-26 was launched from Qinghai on Tuesday, citing a source close to the Chinese military. A U.S. official confirmed that missile test was carried out and said it was provocative but provided no details.
Two U.S. aircraft carriers recently conducted exercises in the South China Sea, challenging China’s claims to maritime sovereignty over some 90% of the sea. The Trump administration has been pushing back hard against Chinese claims to own the South China Sea through both diplomatic efforts, economic sanctions and stepped up military and naval operations.
The missile firing took place after China’s government protested the overflight of a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft that Beijing claimed violated a no-fly zone during naval exercises in the Bohai Sea in northern China.
The DF-26 was launched from a missile base in Qinghai in northwestern China and the DF-21D was fired from Zhejiang province in the eastern part of the country. Both missiles are believed to be able to carry both nuclear and conventional warheads. The DF-26 has a range of around 2,485 miles, while the DF-21 has a range of around 1,116 miles.
The South China Morning Post quoted the military source as saying the missile firings were intended to improve the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to deny access to the sea.
“This is China’s response to the potential risks brought by the increasingly frequent incoming U.S. warplanes and military vessels in the South China Sea,” the source told the newspaper. “China doesn’t want the neighboring countries to misunderstand Beijing’s goals.”