A source close to the Chinese military said today that an “aircraft-carrier killer” and one other missile were launched into the South China Sea as a warning to the US. One of the missiles, a DF-26B, was launched from the northwestern province of Qinghai, while the other, a DF-21D, lifted off from Zhejiang, a province in the east of the country. The move represents a drastic escalation in an already fragile standoff between two of the world’s biggest nuclear powers. Both missiles targeted between Hainan province and the Paracel Islands according to Beijing’s forces, areas contested by smaller nations such as Vietnam and Taiwan.
While the launch has been framed as a mere “warning”, the warheads’ capabilities will cause concern in Washington, and among China’s neighbours in Asia.
The DF-21D in particular has been described as an especially dangerous weapon by experts.
It was unveiled in 2015, and is thought to have a range exceeding 1,450 kilometres according to the US National Air and Space Intelligence Center.
As the Financial Times reported, the missile could also travel up to 10 times the speed of sound, making it virtually impossible to intercept once launched.
It has been noted to have difficulties with internal power systems and loses accuracy over flight time.
However, with the South China Sea being 1600km from one of the launch sites in Zhejiang, the warhead could pose a real threat to US ships in the region in the event of genuine conflict.
In 2014, China deployed the Jin-class ballistic missile submarine for the first time, each armed with 12 JL-2 nuclear missiles.
Operating from a state-of-the-art base near Sanya, on Hainan island’s southernmost tip, Jin-class submarines started patrolling the depths of the South China Sea.
On top of its weapons development, China has also built up island bases in the Spratly Island chain.
The Spratly Islands are claimed by China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei – and have become the cornerstone of China’s quest for dominance in the region.
Some photographs showed cargo ships and supply vessels, which The Philippine Daily Inquirer said appeared to be delivering construction materials to the China-controlled islands.
Others show runways, hangars, control towers, helipads and radomes as well as a series of multistorey buildings that China has built on reefs.
The moving of its aircraft carriers airstrips and weapons into the region has earned the cluster of bases the nickname: “The Great Wall of Sand.”
The key motivations for Beijing in its audacious water claims is the lucrative shipping lanes and trading ports that make up the South China Sea, provoking President Xi Jinping to enforce a controversial Nine-Dash Line demarcation of what China deems to be its territory.
The demarcation enforces a claim over all of the island clusters in the region and 90 percent of the South China Sea as a whole, but is deemed illegal by UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).