The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF, 中國人民解放軍火箭軍) is believed to have test-fired as many as six ballistic missiles into disputed waters in the South China Sea during exercises from June 29 to July 3, sparking strong criticism from the United States, Australia, and other claimants in the contested area. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn described the exercise, which reportedly involved anti-ship ballistic missiles fired into the disputed area, as “coercive acts meant to intimidate other South China Sea claimants.” The continued militarization of the South China Sea by Beijing, and the escalation implied by the use of advanced missile systems in the contested area, represent a direct threat to Taiwan, a claimant in the area.
Prior to the exercise, China’s maritime safety authorities in Sansha (三沙市), on Yongxing Island (永興島), issued a navigation warning in a designated area north of the Spratly Islands (南沙群島), between the Spratly and Paracel Islands (西沙群島). Possibly in response to US complaints about the missile launch(es), Sansha authorities shortened the navigation warning by 24 hours.
At the time of this writing, the type(s) of missile(s) suspected of having been fired during the exercise has yet to be confirmed, although it is believed to involve the Dong Feng-21D (“East Wind,” 東風-21D) or the DF-26 (東風-26), both ballistic missiles. Known as the “carrier killer,” the DF-21D maneuverable anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) has an estimated range of about 1,500 km (approximately 932 miles). The DF-26, which can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads and can reportedly be used against targets on land and at sea, has a range of up to 4,000 km (approximately 2,485 miles). Following deployment in the region, both missiles would have the ability to target Taiwanese navy vessels and other assets in the South China Sea, and to threaten commercial shipping during an embargo contingency against Taiwan. As one of the claimants to the South China Sea, Taiwan controls Itu Aba (Taiping Island), on which it has built and extended a military airstrip and bolstered its military presence in the past decade. Should China decide to seize the strategically located island, the addition of the DF-21D and DF-26 would severely complicate Taipei’s ability to defend its assets.
The US Department of Defense “was aware of the Chinese missile launch from […] man-made structures in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands,” Lt. Col. Eastburn said, adding that “What’s truly disturbing about this act is that it’s in direct contradiction to President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) statement”—made in the Rose Garden in 2015—“that he would not militarize those man-made outposts.” According to the Pentagon spokesman, the missile launch occurred near the Spratly Islands, approximately 1,000 kilometers, or 621 miles, south of Hainan.
It now appears that the reference to the missile firing from man-made structures in the South China Sea may have been erroneous and may in fact have occurred on the Chinese mainland or, as some analysts now speculate, at a new PLARF facility 10 km west (approximately six miles) of the city of Danzhou on Hainan Island, which abuts the South China Sea. The base is believed to have become operational since 2018 and is regarded as a prime candidate for the deployment of the DF-21D and DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) on road-mobile transporter-erector-launchers (TEL).
Describing the foreign alarm as overreaction and “contrary to the facts,” China’s Ministry of National Defense (MND) said the live-fire exercises by the Southern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) were part of an annual drill in waters in proximity to Hainan Province. An unnamed source in the Chinese military told the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) mouthpiece, that the live-fire drills were not held in waters near disputed island territory in the South China Sea.
The location of the facility from which the ballistic missiles were fired does make a difference. If they indeed occurred from man-made platforms in the South China Sea, such a move would constitute grave and incontrovertible escalation in China’s ongoing militarization of the disputed sea expanse (China denies it is engaged in militarization). Conversely, the launch of ballistic missiles from inland locations makes their interception by the targeted country much more complex, given the extremely high speeds involved during re-entry (the longer the range of a ballistic missile, the higher it must climb to reach its target; and the higher it climbs, the more time it takes for it to fall to the ground, giving gravity more time to accelerate the descent of the warhead, at a rate of about 9.8 m per second squared 21.92 mi/(h.s).
What is less debatable is the fact that the inclusion of ASMBs and IRBMs in live-fire exercises conducted by the PLA’s Southern Theatre Command in or near the South China Sea constitutes escalation and sends a threatening signal to the US and other countries which in recent months have conducted freedom of navigation patrols (FONOP) in the South China Sea as well as free passages in the Taiwan Strait. Should such testing become regular—and we can expect Beijing will seek to normalize those, as it has done in other spheres over the years—the PLA’s ability to improve the accuracy and performance of its ASBM systems, not just in the South China Sea but in the Taiwan Strait and within the entire “firsts island chain,” will increase, and with that, its ability to coerce its opponents and reinforce the effectiveness of its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability. This, no doubt, will complicate the efforts of the US Navy and regional allies in the South China Sea and beyond.
While the Chinese Ministry of National Defense sought to downplay the importance of the drills, Chinese military commentators, often coming across as more hawkish than the MND, saw things differently and regarded the move as a means to put pressure on Washington ahead of negotiations in an escalating trade war, as well as for its leading role in the South China Sea and continued support for Taiwan.
“The ultimate backing for diplomatic effort is absolute power, military might. In the case of the US, that’s their 11 aircraft carrier strike groups,” Ni Lexiong (倪樂雄), a Shanghai-based military scholar told the Global Times. “The DF-21D is something that could pose a threat to that.”
On June 2, the PLA Navy also conducted a test-launch of what is suspected to have been a Ju Lang-3 (JL-3, 巨浪-3) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) during naval exercise in the Bohai Sea and Bohai Strait between the Liaodong and Shandong Peninsulas. The PLA did not confirm the nature of the missile involved. The JL-3 SLBM, which is currently under development, has an operational range estimated at 14,000 km (around 869 miles) and may be equipped with as many as 10 independent guided nuclear warheads. The missile, which was first test-launched in November 2018, is expected to enter service on the Type 096 nuclear ballistic submarine over the next decade. The launch coincided with the closing day of the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and on the day PLA General Wei Fenghe (魏鳳和), State Councilor and Minister of National Defense, delivered his assertive plenary talk.
In January 2019, Chinese media reported that the DF-26 had been “mobilized to Northwest China’s plateau and desert areas,” after a “US warship trespassed into China’s territorial waters [sic] off the Xisha [Paracel] Islands in the South China Sea.”
Consequences and Opportunities For Taiwan
Taiwan’s defense ministry has not commented publicly on the suspected launches. The Youth Daily News, published by the ministry, ran a short article on July 6 aggregating foreign news reports on the matter.
While there may be a dispute over the origin of the launches, military forces within the region have the radar- and satellite-tracking capability to differentiate between the firing of regular artillery and that involving medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. One of the key regional assets is the long-range early-warning radar (EWR) atop Leshan (樂山) in Hsinchu County, Taiwan.
Located 1,600 km from Taiwan’s southernmost point, Taiwan-controlled Taiping Island is the largest natural feature in the South China Sea. The island features a pier and a 1,200-meter runway. The island’s defense relies on a combination of 40 mm anti-aircraft artillery and 120 mm mortar, AT-4 anti-armor rockets and other light weapons. Upgrades to its pier have permitted visits by larger-displacement Coast Guard and Navy vessels.
Arguably the most powerful EWR in the entire region, the system, which went operational in 2013, has an area of coverage of nearly 360 degrees and a surveillance distance as far as 3,000 nautical miles (approximately 5,000 km). The approximately USD $1.4 billion radar has a “comprehensive surveillance” of any air-breathing target from the Korean Peninsula in the north to the South China Sea in the south. According to the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) Lt. Gen. Wu Wan-chiao (吳萬教), the EWR “provides [Taiwan] with more than 6 minutes’ warning in preparation for any surprise attacks” by China. Leshan also was able to detect a missile launch by North Korea in December 2012 a few minutes ahead of Japan, which is located much closer to the launch site, Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense said at the time.
Quantitative and qualitative improvements in the PLARF’s arsenal, and the deployment of new systems along coastal areas of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), pose a substantial threat to Taiwan, the target of an estimated 1,600 ballistic missiles from China, as well as US forces based in the region (Okinawa, Guam), and any country that seeks to involve itself in a Taiwan Strait military contingency. The growing threat of IRBMs and ASBMs to the entire region therefore creates an opportunity for Taiwan to put the EWR’s capabilities at the disposal of its security partners through early warning and intelligence sharing (Taiwan would not confirm it was sharing data collected from the EWR with the US, but there is every reason to believe that exchanges do occur regularly). As Kevin Cheng (鄭繼文), chief editor of Asia-Pacific Defense Magazine, observed in 2013, “Through the sharing with the United States of the information it collects from the radar system, Taiwan becomes a critical link in the US strategic defense network in the region.”
Once again, Chinese assertiveness and its willingness to challenge established rules is creating incentives for the US and the region to further engage Taiwan on security matters.
The main point: The reported test-launch of anti-ship ballistic missiles by the PLA Rocket Force near or into contested areas of the South China Sea during exercises in late June and early July escalates tensions in the region and puts a premium on Taiwan’s ability to share intelligence on missile launches with its allies.