China’s launch of four ballistic missiles into the South China Sea on 26 August has served to escalate tensions with the US, which imposed sanctions the same day on Chinese companies helping the nation’s continuing militarisation of the region.

The launches took place during military exercises, with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) unilaterally closing off large areas of the waters which are subject to territorial claims from multiple nations. American and other observers express concern at the apparent lack of acknowledgement of the rule of law in the area, especially the right of free passage through international waters. The area carries approximately half the world’s merchant shipping in trade valued at trillions of dollars annually.

The Pentagon issued a statement of concern on 27 August, contending that China's actions “stand in contrast to its pledge to not militarize the South China Sea and are in contrast to the United States' vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, in which all nations, large and small, are secure in their sovereignty, free from coercion, and able to pursue economic growth consistent with accepted international rules and norms […] The [PRC] chose to escalate its exercise activities by firing ballistic missiles. We urge all parties to exercise restraint and not undertake military activities that could threaten freedom of navigation and aggravate disputes in the South China Sea.”

Chinese Ministry of Defence spokesman Wu Qian told news media the same day that the US has “continued to provoke tensions and undermine China's sovereignty and security,” adding that current diplomatic relations between the two countries have been ”severely damaged.”

Precise identification of the missiles fired by China has not yet been made public, but MON understands they were either DF-21D or DF-26 systems, both of which have been assessed as being primarily anti-ship missiles. The two systems are claimed to be the first ballistic missiles specifically designed as ‘carrier-busters’ and at least two reports cited by analysts in the last few days suggest the 26 August launch proves Beijing’s ability to attack a large maritime target from several directions at once in a coordinated manoeuvre, saturating the target’s defences.

The DF-21D (pictured) and DF-26 were designed, it is claimed, specifically to attack and destroy US aircraft carriers. (Photo via PRC MoD)

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