The deployment of the DF-26 ballistic missiles in China’s remote northwest plateau, originally announced Tuesday on China Central Television, follows a mission from the US guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell, which steamed close to the Paracel Islands, the previous day.
The 1.3 million-square-mile South China Sea has seen increasing tension in recent years, with China aggressively asserting its stake amid conflicting claims from several Southeast Asian nations.
“McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law,” US Pacific Fleet spokesperson Lt. j.g. Rachel McMarr said in a statement.
China accused the US of trespassing into its territorial waters.
“The US action violated the Chinese laws and international laws, infringed China’s sovereignty, damaged regional peace, security, and order,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said on Monday. “China will take necessary actions to protect state sovereignty.”
Citing an anonymous expert, the Global Times said the DF-26 missile mobilization “is a good reminder that China is capable of safeguarding its territory.”
Beijing has built fortifications on contested islands, landed long-range bombers and last year President Xi Jinping, who claims the area has been Chinese territory since “ancient times,” oversaw China’s largest-ever naval parade there.
The DF-26 missile system originally entered active service in the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Forces last April. It was unveiled during a military parade in 2015 in Beijing in 2015.
“Foremost among China’s military assets capable of reaching Guam, the DF-26 IRBM represents the culmination of decades of advancements to China’s conventional ballistic missile forces,” a 2016 report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said.
According to a report from the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, China may have an anti-ship version of the DF-26 under development — and may have even tested it in 2017.
However military analyst Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, cast doubt on whether the DF-26 was workable as an anti-ship weapon. Using one effectively would require practicing procedures and tactics that China had not yet shown, he said.
“Remember, the Soviet Union never successfully developed an ASBM (anti-ship ballistic missile) and no country in the West has one,” Schuster said.
Reports of its deployment may be intended to show the domestic Chinese audience that Beijing has the will and ability to defends its South China Sea claims, he said.
Tuesday’s Global Times report, citing an unnamed expert, said the DF-26 was deployed in China’s northwest as it was protected from opposing anti-missile forces in that area.
Despite Chinese warnings, the US is unlikely to stop challenging Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea.
Washington says China’s construction and fortification of man-made islands puts trillions of dollars of trade, travel and communications under the thumb of Beijing.
“The Trump administration is not going to back off in the face of Chinese pressure,” Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defense strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra, told CNN in December.
Any US withdrawal would “severely undermine (US) credibility and encourage the Chinese to be more assertive and bold,” he added.
The McCampbell’s “freedom of navigation” operation on Monday was the US Navy’s first of 2019. Analysts said the US performed one about every eight weeks last year.
One operation almost resulted in a collision between a US destroyer, the USS Decatur, and the Chinese one that challenged it, the Lanzhou, in September.
The two vessels came within 45 yards (41 meters) of each other near the contested Spratly Islands, with the US Navy saying at the time that the Chinese warship “conducted a series of increasingly aggressive maneuvers accompanied by warnings for Decatur to depart the area.”
After the incident, some pro-Beijing commentators called for China’s navy to go even further.
“If a US warship illegally enters into Chinese territorial waters again, two Chinese warships should be sent, one to stop it and the other to bump against and sink it,” Dai Xu, president of China’s Institute of Marine Safety and Cooperation, was quoted as saying in an article on the Chinese military’s English-language website.
Meanwhile, President Xi reportedly started 2019 by ordering the country’s military to enhance combat readiness.
Speaking at a meeting of the Central Military Commission in Beijing on January 4, Xi said the PLA should “upgrade commanding capability of joint operations, foster new combat forces, and improve military training under combat conditions,” according to a state media report.