China Threatens U.S. Freedom of Navigation Patrols with Anti-Ship Missiles

China says the USS Hopper, center in this 2009 file photo, was involved in a close encount
Michael A. Lantron/U.S. Navy/UPI

China responded to the latest U.S. Navy freedom of navigation patrol in the South China Sea by declaring it would “take necessary actions to protect state sovereignty” and touting its deployment of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles as a step toward doing so. Chinese state media pointedly described the missiles as “ship-killers.”

China’s state-run Global Times reported the deployment of Dong Feng-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles to northwestern China on Tuesday, advertising the weapons as a “new generation of intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of targeting medium and large ships at sea.”

The launchers are supposedly parked in the interior of the country to make the missiles more difficult to intercept, but the launch platforms are mobile and could be quickly moved to any desired firing position.

This week’s deployment is the first time the public has seen the new missile outside of a parade. It could be one of the most dangerous weapons in the People’s Liberation Army arsenal if it performs as advertised. The DF-26 missile is ostensibly capable of sinking aircraft carriers and striking targets across the South China Sea if the launchers are moved to optimum positions. One of the nicknames given to the DF-26 is “Guam Killer” because it can target the vital U.S. airbase on that island.

The Global Times eagerly presented the DF-26 deployment as a threat to U.S. freedom of navigation patrols:

The timing of the report sparked discussions among Chinese military observers online, as it came after the USS McCampbell, a US guided missile destroyer, trespassed into China’s territorial waters off the Xisha Islands on Monday without permission from the Chinese government.

China dispatched aircraft and warships to warn the US vessel and has lodged a solemn representation with the US, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Lu Kang said at a daily briefing on Monday.

The report is a good reminder that China is capable of safeguarding its territory, the anonymous expert said. “Even when launched from deeper inland areas of China, the DF-26 has a range far-reaching enough to cover the South China Sea.”

Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Malcolm Davis told Australia’s ABC News the DF-26 deployment is a “significant” step in China’s preparations for possible conflict with the United States. He did not think an attack on a U.S. warship is imminent, but worried about China “building up towards something in the next couple of years.”

Davis noted China’s strategy of overwhelming technologically superior U.S. ships with swarms of missiles requires China to move a large number of weapons into position well in advance.

“Politically and strategically there is a growing risk of a conflict between China and Taiwan that could ultimately see China trying to sink US naval vessels, including aircraft carriers,” he predicted.

Former director of the U.S. Pacific Command Joint Intelligence Center Carl Schuster told CNN on Thursday there are reasons to doubt the DF-26 would be as effective an anti-ship weapon as China claims.

Noting that truly effective anti-ship ballistic missiles might not exist in any country’s inventory at the present time, and China has never conducted exercises involving the DF-26 in an anti-ship capacity, he saw the Chinese missile deployment as largely – primarily an effort by the Chinese Communist government to look tough against U.S. “aggression” before its own public and appear to be enthusiastically carrying out Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s instructions to upgrade military capabilities.


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