GP Insights

GP Insights # 406, 30 August 2020

South China Sea: China launches missiles in the disputed waters
Teshu Singh

What happened?

On 26 August 2020, China launched two missiles; D-21 (range of around 1,800km) and DF-26 (Ballistic Missile with a range of 3000-4000 km) in the disputed South China Sea. The two missiles were launched from the northwest province of Qinghai and Zhejiang province into an area between Hainan province and the Paracel Islands. 

The above development comes immediately a day after, a U-2 spy plane of the US entered a "no-fly zone" at the time of ongoing Chinese live-fire naval drill in the Bohai Sea. 

What is the background?

First, there were prior indications, and China had shown intent to test the missiles. China also had, announced a travel exclusion zone in a part of the South China Sea. The missiles launch follows a series of military exercises that China was conducting. 

 Second, without providing the details, Colonel Wu Qian (spokesperson of the Ministry of National Defence) confirmed that China carried out long-planned drills in the area from Qingdao to the South China Sea. He added, "the above exercises are not directed at any country". Colonel Wu held the US responsible for the deteriorating situation between the two countries and reiterated, that the bilateral relations are facing an "unusually severe and complicated situation". He further added that "China's military will not dance to the US tune, but also we will not bow to its reckless behaviour". 

Third, the US sanctions as a retaliation against the missile launch. After the launch, the US government has imposed sanctions on 24 Chinese state-owned enterprises. These sanctions include several subsidiaries of China Communication Construction Company (CCCC) that are helping China in bolstering its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The companies will be added to the Commerce Department's Entity List, which inhibits American firms from selling US goods and technology to these companies without a special license. 

Subsequently, the US Department of State announced visa restrictions on Chinese individuals "responsible for, or complicit in, either the large scale reclamation, construction, or militarization of disputed outposts in the South China Sea, or the PRC's use of coercion against Southeast Asian claimants to inhibit their access to offshore resources." According to the restriction, the individuals will not be allowed entry in the US and their immediate family members could also be subject to restrictions. Amid the ongoing US-China trade friction, it is the first punitive action by the US over the disputed water. In all probability, it is likely to further escalate the tension between the countries.

What does it mean?

The missile tests come against the background of the ongoing annual RIMPAC (the Rim of Pacific Exercise) military drills in Hawaii. In a related development, Mark Esper said that the ruling Chinese Communist Party wants China to project power globally through its military. He further reiterated that "this will undoubtedly involve the People's Liberation Army provocative behaviour in the South and East China Seas, and anywhere else, the Chinese government has deemed critical to its interests."

Through the missiles test, China wants to emphasize its strategic dominance and sovereignty over the disputed region. The test will further destabilize the region. The Pentagon has reiterated that conducting military exercises is counterproductive to easing tensions and maintain stability. It is a violation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It also raises doubts about the motivation behind the ongoing negotiation for a Code of Conduct between China and ASEAN. Overall, the test has caused unease among China's neighbours and will further destabilize the already volatile disputed region.

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