Beijing has taken another major step in its slow but doggedly persistent campaign to fix the South China Sea as a “Chinese lake.” Between June 29 and July 3 it test-fired a series of anti-ship, medium-range missiles into a 22,000 square kilometer bloc of the South China Sea between the disputed Paracel and Spratly island groups.

The tests are bringing to the waters of the South China and East China seas a situation that is alarmingly reminiscent of one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War in Europe.

Throughout the 1980s the Soviet Union and NATO faced off with what were known as “theatre” short and medium-range nuclear missiles. These were aimed at deterring “blitzkrieg” tank, infantry and air-to-ground attacks by either side across the plains of Central Europe.

But there was much popular outrage in the West because these weapons were seen as inherently more easy to trigger and strategically unstable than the regular intercontinental ballistic missile forces. Moscow and Washington eventually agreed to ban them.   

‘Carrier killer’

Among the missiles tested by China earlier this month are believed to have been the DF-21D, the fearsome “carrier killer.”

This would be the first known full-flight test of the 1,500 kilometer-range DF-21D over the sea. The missile is specifically designed to attack aircraft carriers and is almost impossible to defend against because it drops vertically onto its target and is maneuverable in its terminal phase.

Other missiles reported to have been tested over the South China Sea are the DF-26, which has a range of up to 5,000 kilometers and can have either a nuclear or conventional warhead. The DF-26 is known as the “Guam Express” because of its ability to attack the island of Guam where the US maintains a major military base for power projection in the north and west Pacific Ocean.   

The tests were a vivid warning to the United States in particular that its warships and aircraft carrier battle groups are vulnerable when crossing the South China Sea, or coming to the aid of threatened allies in waters claimed by Beijing.

Likewise, the tests told the countries of Southeast and East Asia who rely on Washington’s power to keep the peace, that the calming threat of US intervention is no longer entirely credible.

The US will doubtless try to reassure its allies of its commitment to the region and to the containment of Beijing’s expansionism. But those reassurances will have little credibility while the unpredictable, but fundamentally isolationist Donald Trump is in the White House.

Asian countries with territorial and maritime disputes with Beijing, which include most of China’s neighbors such as Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and even Indonesia, are looking beyond Washington for their defense.

Most of these countries have been beefing up their military capacities since Beijing began its massive military modernization and creation of a blue water navy nearly 30 years ago. They have also been nurturing alliances with regional middle powers such as Japan, Australia and India to provide a counterbalance to the unreliable Washington regime.

Although the message of Beijing’s missile tests is clear, the details of what happened are in dispute.

Warning to shipping

Prior to the tests, China’s Maritime Safety Administration warned shipping to keep out of the 22,000 square kilometer area of the open sea north of the Spratly Islands because of a live-fire exercise between June 29 and July 3.

These waters are also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam and are close to commercial air and sea routes. About US$5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes through these waters every year, representing about one third of global shipping.

China’s Defence Ministry insists that these were only “live ammunition firing drills in waters south of Hainan Island in accordance with annual exercise arrangements.” Reports of missile firings “do not accord with the facts,” said the statement.

The Pentagon, however, said there is no doubt there were missile tests. It also first insisted these were fired from one or more of the seven artificial island military bases Beijing has built in the South China Sea in the past five years.

That does not appear to have been the case. In an analysis of the episode, Oxford Analytica, the British-based global risk assessment company, said: “The missiles probably originated from China’s coast, not the artificial islands.

“China would gain little from deploying such missiles to small islands, or arguably even to the large island of Hainan just off China’s southern coast. Doing so would needlessly increase their vulnerability without significantly expanding their already-long range.”

Even so, the message is clear. US warships crossing the South China Sea whether to demonstrate “freedom of navigation” rights or to support allies are far more vulnerable than in the past.

It is logical to expect that Beijing will carry on with regular missile tests in the same region in coming years. These will be both to perfect the weapon’s system, remind Washington and other potential adversaries of its potency and embed Beijing’s de facto sovereignty over the South China Sea.

For these reasons, the testing of the “carrier killer” missiles is a profound escalation in the already dangerous military elbowing going on between Beijing and Washington in the South China Sea.

Military bases

After the construction of the seven islands by dredging sand and building concrete reinforcements onto coral shoals, China’s President and communist party leader Xi Jinping said in 2015 that Beijing did not intend to make them into military bases.

He said the only purpose of the islands was to provide havens and replenishment bases for Chinese fishing fleets operating in the region.

However, in May 2018 Beijing began deploying anti-ship cruise missiles and anti-aircraft surface-to-air missiles on the islands, which were also quickly adapted to be bases for the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the air force, China’s Coast Guard and its shock troops of the Maritime Militia.

In retaliation, Washington withdrew its invitation for China’s navy to join the US-led multinational Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises. China’s inclusion in RIMPAC was meant to be a confidence-building measure, aimed at lessening the likelihood of accidental conflict at sea because of a lack of understanding of how the other navy operates.

Beijing claimed its actions in militarizing its island outposts were only defensive and a reaction to the challenges to its sovereignty over the South China Sea by the “freedom of navigation” operations by US and other warships.

That was a handy nonsense. The International Court of Arbitration had already ruled that there was no legal or historical basis for Beijing’s claim to own the South China Sea. Beijing could therefore be certain that its island-building in defiance of international law was bound to bring push-back from the US and its allies, and therefore an excuse to arm the islands.

Until recently the US was prohibited from developing and deploying the same kind of medium-range nuclear and conventionally armed missiles as the DF-21D and the DF-26.

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (IRNF) treaty was signed by US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on December 8, 1987. It banned nuclear-armed, ground-launched missiles with ranges up to 5,500 kilometers and was a significant element in the confidence-building measures between Moscow and Washington that led to the end of the Cold War.

Tactical nuclear weapons

However, the Trump regime withdrew the US from the IRNF in March last year. The US is thus now free to develop and deploy the same kind of “area denial” missiles as Beijing.

Some in the current White House administration are arguing that this will restore military balance to the Far East and Southeast Asia if China knows its major warships are just as vulnerable as those of its opponents.

Perhaps, but it is worth remembering that the IRNF was negotiated and agreed because both the Soviet Union and NATO understood that the deployment of what were called “tactical nuclear weapons” could easily trigger escalating conflict leading to an all-out nuclear war.

If Washington responds to Beijing’s “carrier killers” with an updated version of its 1980s Pershing nuclear missiles, Asia will be on the same knife-edge as Europe was 40 years ago.

It would be wonderful to believe that Xi and Trump have the same sagacity to confront the dangers and absurdity of this situation as did Reagan and Gorbachev.

jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com