The Chinese missile frigate Yuncheng launches an anti-ship missile during a military exercise in the waters near south China’s Hainan Island and Paracel Islands in a file photo. Image: Xinhua

In the latest hot salvo in an intensifying US-China Cold War, China launched its much-feared “aircraft-carrier killer” missiles into the South China Sea in a clear warning to the US Navy.

The incident underscored Beijing’s growing willingness to flex its military muscle and even risk confrontation with the US in its adjacent waters, raising concerns over accidental clashes and an armed escalation in the high seas.

In particular, China launched a DF-21D missile from the eastern province of Zhejiang and a DF-26B missile from the northwestern province of Qinghai while People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forces conducted naval drills off the coast of Guangdong and Hainan Island this week.

The provocative move came only a day after China accused a US U-2 spy plane of illegally entering a “no-fly zone” during naval drills it held in the far north Bohai Sea.

Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesman, described the spy plane overflight as “provocative actions” and urged the US to stop.  China’s military will neither “dance to the tune of the US” nor allow the US to “cause trouble”, defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian said on Thursday.

The Pentagon confirmed the U-2 spy plane overflight, saying it was “within the accepted international rules and regulations governing aircraft flights.”

The missile launches, meanwhile, came on the heels of a US announcement to blacklist 24 Chinese companies and target individuals it said are part of construction and military actions in the South China Sea, its first imposition of sanctions over the disputed seas.

China is protesting the alleged incursion of a US Air Force U-2 spy plane into a no-fly zone imposed during live-fire military exercises in the country’s north. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

China’s provocative missile shots came amid an unprecedented near-simultaneous four-region military exercises spanning the Yellow Sea, Bohai Sea, East China Sea and South China Sea.

Though militarily the US maintains both a qualitative and quantitative edge over China, the Asian powerhouse has pursued a focused and increasingly sophisticated “anti-access/area-denial” (A2/AD) asymmetric warfare strategy in its nearby waters.

At the same time, the US is doubling down on its commitment to maintain freedom of navigation in the waters. On Wednesday, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper averred that the US “won’t cede an inch” in the Pacific in what reports characterized as a thinly veiled swipe at China.

The pivotal event in spurring China’s current strategy was the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis, when the Bill Clinton administration deployed two aircraft carrier battle groups led by the  USS Nimitz and USS Independence to intimidate Beijing against further provocations against Taiwan.

Then, a much weaker and poorer China was forced to back down, but since then it has been determined to avoid a similar strategic humiliation in its adjacent waters.

At the heart of China’s counter-strategy is its burgeoning armory of “carrier-killer” long-range missiles, which have significantly raised the potential cost of any American military intervention during a contingency in the Western Pacific.

The just-launched DF-26 dual-capable missile, which has a range of 4,000 kilometers, can be deployed for both conventional and nuclear strikes against targets in the high seas. The lethal weapon system is actually banned under the recently-nixed US-Russia Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The Trump administration has cited China’s missile systems as a key justification for its withdrawal from the arms control agreement with Russia.

The DF-26 on parade in Beijing in a file photo. Image: Facebook

The DF-21 missile, meanwhile, has a more medium-range of around 1,800 kilometers while the DF-21D variant has been dubbed by Chinese state media as the world’s pioneering anti-ship ballistic missile.

Buoyed by a rapidly expanding naval force, the PLA is deploying an integrated body of missile defense systems and “carrier-killer” missiles across its coastal regions as part of a hybrid strategy of deterrence against US forces.

“If the United States had to fight Russia in a Baltic contingency or China in a war over Taiwan, Americans could face a decisive military defeat,” warned a 2018 bipartisan experts report from the National Defense Strategy Commission.

“America’s ability to defend its allies, its partners, and its own vital interests is increasingly in doubt. If the nation does not act promptly to remedy these circumstances, the consequences will be grave and lasting,” the report said.  

It added: “Many of the skills necessary to plan for and conduct military operations against capable adversaries — especially China and Russia — have atrophied.”

Alarmed by China’s burgeoning A2/AD capabilities, the Pentagon initially adopted the controversial Air Sea Battle Doctrine, which would have called for an integrated paralysis of China’s entire command-and-control systems and strategic communications during a contingency.

In 2015, the US dropped the doctrine because it was deemed as too provocative, with the Barack Obama administration then intent on engaging with Beijing. But reports suggest that the Pentagon is still reformulating the idea in other guises.

Unlike its predecessors, the Donald Trump administration has shown less resistance in confronting China through increased naval deployments in Asian waters as well as expanding security cooperation with regional allies such as the Philippines and partners such as Taiwan, which China considers as a renegade province.  

The New York Times first reported on Friday that Defense Secretary Mark Esper has been briefed on the Navy’s recommendation but wants more time to think it over. Credit: DOD.

“There is no kowtowing’ to China,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr said during a recent interview (August 26), reiterating his country’s commitment to maintain robust ties with the US and defend its interests in the South China Sea.

“Unless something happens, as I said before, that is beyond incursion and in fact is an attack on, say, a Philippine vessel, in which case then I call up Washington DC,” he added, just a month after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo effectively backed the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea against China’s.

Sources within China’s security establishment have warned that the latest “carrier killer” missile launches aim at sharpening the country’s ability to deter American assistance to its allies while potentially diminishing external powers’ access to the South China Sea. 

“This is China’s response to the potential risks brought by the increasingly frequent incoming US warplanes and military vessels in the South China Sea,” the Chinese source told the South China Morning Post.

“China doesn’t want the neighboring countries to misunderstand Beijing’s goals,” he added, emphasizing the main import of the latest maneuvers.

Another China military expert, Song Zhongping, made it clear that the missile launches are part of Beijing’s attempt to “showcase its military strength to let Washington know that even US aircraft carriers cannot flex their full muscle near China’s coast.”