While COVID-19 distracts the world, China is making missile moves that could put the United States and its allies at a major disadvantage. After a decade of development, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has brought its most capable conventional deterrent from the test ranges (and parade ground) to international waters, firing anti-ship ballistic missiles into the South China Sea in each of the past two years.
The world will not be able to overlook the next target … the Pacific. Within the next two years, PLA missiles could splash into the Pacific Ocean carrying with them geopolitical ramifications that, if left unchecked, would cede strategic ground to Beijing. However, with deliberate planning, the United States can exploit this aggression to expand its diplomatic and regional standing in ways not previously possible.
Last year, China launched more ballistic missiles than the rest of the world combined. This is part of President Xi Jinping’s drive to “strengthen long-range precision strike forces and enhance strategic counter-balance capability.” At this arsenal’s forefront are anti-ship ballistic missiles specifically designed to counter the greatest U.S. power projection capability in the region, the U.S. Navy. In July 2019, the PLA launched six anti-ship ballistic missiles, likely the DF-21D, into the South China Sea. In August of this year, these launches were not only repeated but China may have upped the ante by firing the newer and longer-range DF-26.
Despite the flurry of activity, China has yet to employ ballistic missiles in realistic combat training in the Pacific as conducted by other PLA elements. Last year, the PLA Navy deployed an aircraft carrier task group for its first Far Seas combat exercise and the PLA Air Force conducted multiple bomber flights to “demonstrate China’s ability to range Guam with air-launched missiles.”
China has been expectantly cautious launching missiles beyond the First Island Chain given the risk of missile failure and the potential international backlash. However, as Beijing struggles to manage the rising tensions with its neighbors and the United States, the strategic deterrent value of these weapons may soon outweigh the risks. Xi Jinping himself tasked the PLA with making missile “breakthroughs in strategic deterrence capability.” Soon, he will leverage his anti-ship ballistic missiles to this end.
Anti-ship ballistic missile launches into the western Pacific would carry three geopolitical aims for China:
• First, it would send a clear message to U.S. allies and partners that the U.S. military may be incapable of or dramatically slowed in responding during a crisis. The threat of isolation could weigh heavily on Japan’s willingness to negotiate during a Senkaku crisis or on Taiwan’s ability to withstand the constant pressure for reunification. Additionally, it would serve as another reminder to those embroiled in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, that the only viable option for peace is bilateral negotiations with Beijing.
• Second, China’s view looking out to the oceans has been defined by geographic barriers and U.S.-alliances running from the Strait of Malacca to the Japanese islands. Looming large over any Beijing decision to escalate is the threat of a distant blockade hindering China’s access to much-needed resources from the rest of the world. Successful missile launches into the western Pacific would symbolize the PLA’s ability to break beyond these constraints.
• Finally, in response to China’s aggression inside the First Island Chain, the United States has implemented a whole-of-government approach, including diplomatic outreach with non-traditional partners, economic sanctions and increased military operations. Missile launches into the Pacific would alleviate this pressure by diverting U.S. focus away from China’s Near Seas to its Far Seas, creating the maneuver and negotiating space necessary for China to solidify its control within the Nine-Dash Line.
The prospect of China anti-ship ballistic missiles in the western Pacific is not a question of “if” but “when,” and the United States must be primed to rapidly respond to the provocation. Above all, U.S. responses must be led by a coherent messaging campaign. We can look to China, of all countries, to see how this is accomplished. Launching a ballistic missile into international waters is complicated and time-intensive during peacetime, taking months of preparation and work.
However, that is not what China would have you believe. Following the anti-ship ballistic missile launches in August 2020, headlines around the world indicated that the training exercise was in direct response to U.S. provocations. For example, Taiwan News headlines read “China fires ‘carrier killer,’ ‘Guam killer’ missiles in retaliation for U-2 flyover.” China’s information operations not only convinced the world it acted due to U.S. destabilizing activities but indirectly messaged the capability to launch missiles with less than a days’ notice.
Similarly, the United States must be prepared to fight and win in the information domain. Every U.S. response, whether it occurs moments after a launch or in the months following, must be explicitly linked back to Beijing’s aggression. The battle of the narrative is as important as the military and diplomatic actions themselves.
Next, the United States must avoid succumbing to China’s trap of shifting focus to the Pacific. For every PLA action in the Far Seas, the United States should have an equal and opposite response in the Near Seas, be it increased military operations, possibly including a joint patrol with Japan in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, or diplomatic outreach to ASEAN countries.
While expanding its presence and influence inside the South and East China seas, the United States must be efficient in how its force is employed elsewhere. As an example, the U.S. Navy’s Rim of the Pacific Exercise, held with partners from around the region, would be the ideal setting for a unified blockade exercise to demonstrate China’s inability to breakout from the First Island Chain.
Finally, PLA missile launches offer an unparalleled opportunity to expand engagement with Taiwan. PLA missile operations over the island provide the perfect backdrop for U.S. port visits and joint interoperability training with the Taiwan military.
Diplomatically, the United States set a precedence of coordinating with Taiwan during a crisis when the U.S. Health secretary visited Taipei in response to the COVID pandemic. Similarly, the United States should establish robust ties with Taipei across other echelons of government in response to this new crisis.
In the maritime environment of the Indo-Pacific, the demonstration of anti-ship ballistic missiles beyond the First Island Chain underpins Beijing’s strategy to diminish confidence in U.S. intervention capabilities and reduce overall U.S. influence throughout the region. Fortunately for the United States, these launches will also create an opportunity not seen since the expansion and militarization of South China Sea features.
U.S. government agencies must commence planning now, both internally and with allies and partners, to avoid the inaction which plagued the response to China’s South China Sea militarization. With the proper coordination, actions and diplomatic outreach, the United States could turn what Xi Jinping believes to be a strategic asset, his anti-ship ballistic missile arsenal, into a strategic vulnerability.
• Jeffrey T. Vanak, U.S. Navy commander, is a national security affairs fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is a naval intelligence officer and operational planner. The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. government.