China’s missile testing threatens peace in the South China Sea

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China tests missile China conducted large-scale military drills in the South China Sea from June 29 to July 3, 2019. The area for the exercises was located between Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands. What raising both the world’s and the region’s concerns was China’s first-time anti-submarine missile fire testing, during this exercise, from man-made features that China has illegally built in the South China Sea in recent years. Currently, China has about 27 military outposts scattered in the South China Sea.

In May 2018, China quietly established anti-ship cruise missile systems and surface-to-air missile systems on several structures in the South China Sea, namely Cross Reef, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef of Spratly Islands. The types of anti-ship cruise missiles that China arranged at these outposts were the YJ-12B and surface-to-air missiles. Some information sources also reported that China also arranged anti-ship cruise missiles YJ-62 on Phu Lam Island of Paracel Islands. International opinion raised concerns over China's deployment of missiles in the South China Sea, strongly criticizing China's militarization of the South China Sea.

The fire testing of anti-submarine missiles from military outposts China established on man-made structures in the South China Sea is a new escalation of China in militarizing the South China Sea, completely contradicting its beautiful, promising statement that “structures in the South China Sea only serve peaceful purposes." This action seriously threatens maritime freedom, security and safety in the South China Sea. Multiple countries have expressed their concerns over this new development of China, considering it an action to realize China's goal of monopolizing the South China Sea.

On July 2, 2019, Pentagon’s Spokesperson Dave East burn said the US Department of Defense had learned about China’s testing of anti-ship missiles from artificial islands built illegally in Spratly Islands under the sovereignty of Vietnam. US warships were also operating in the South China Sea, but not near China’s testing area of the ballistic missiles so they did not face any danger; still, the US criticized China’s action. Spokesperson Eastburn said China's missile launch was an "ominous" act and contradicted Beijing's commitment not to militarizing the South China Sea.

Responding to China's aggressive missile test, July 4, 2019, Australian Defense Ministry Spokesperson said, "Australia is aware of China's ballistic missile drills in the South China Sea. Australia is concerned about the actions of any party that could increase tensions in the South China Sea. Australia always calls for all parties to take meaningful steps to ease tensions and build trust, including those through dialogue”.

On July 4, 2019, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Vietnam said that “all activities of the parties in the South China Sea area should respect the sovereignty, legitimate and legal rights of nations, and comply with international law, especially the United Nations Convention on Law of Sea 1982, contributing to the peace, stability and cooperation in the region”.

China is looking for ways to gloss over the aggressive act of testing missiles in the South China Sea. On July 5, 2019, China's Ministry of Defense emphasized that relevant information (about China's missile testing in the South China Sea) “was not true and accurate”; China only conducted drills with real bullets as usual. China also uses the Global Times (an opinion tool of Chinese Communist Party) to justify its aggressive actions, blaming the US Department of Defense for "deliberately causing discord among countries in the region when it was reported incorrectly that China tested missiles from one of the artificial islands in the South China Sea”.

Aware of China's hegemony and monopoly intentions over the South China Sea, recently, the United States and its allies have promoted their presences in the region. In June 2019, Japan's JS Izumo warship conducted joint drills with US aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in the South China Sea. Many other countries such as Australia, England, France, Canada, India, etc. have also started free navigation activities in the South China Sea.

Many analysts have assessed China's launch of anti-ship missiles in the South China Sea. Dr. Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Strategic Policy Institute of Australia said that Beijing wanted to send a message that it could attack all Navies’ ships operating in the South China Sea threatened the freedom of navigation activities, thereby seeking to consolidate their unilateral claim to the entire South China Sea. Dr. Davis said the goal of China's anti-ship ballistic missile testing was to prove that the US would have to pay a high price if coming to the South China Sea. China thought that the US would not risk its warships or personnel. This is wrong. Dr. Davis affirmed that "The United States will seek to neutralize the threat of China's anti-ship ballistic missiles by attacking the 'extermination chain' - the C41SR network (command, control, intercommunication of intelligence and reconnaissance) that China uses to detect and track U.S. warships, such as reconnaissance aircraft and ocean reconnaissance satellites, and simultaneously attack the missile forces of China".

Professor James R. Holmes, a strategy expert at the US Naval War University, said that through the test launch of anti-ship ballistic missiles, Beijing let other countries see that others’ warships could only be present in the South China Sea if China "allowed" it. Beijing wanted to "deter" US warships from staying within the reach of Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles, preventing the US from accessing waters in the South China Sea unless the US accepted casualties. Professor Holmes said that "if Washington faltered in maintaining freedom of navigation at sea, its allies and partners would be disappointed by Washington's ability to uphold its commitment. In this case, China won”.

While ASEAN countries are working with China to discuss the development of the Code of Conduct of the parties in the South China Sea (COC) and China itself proposed to complete the COC in three years, China's new actions in the South China Sea to launch anti-ship missiles from China-occupied structures went against the principles of the DOC as well as the COC and further showed the international communities that China said one thing but did another. These aggressive actions of China will undoubtedly affect the COC negotiation process.

China's test launch of anti-ship missiles in the South China Sea has shown clearly its aggressive, hegemonic nature to the international community. This action of China seriously threatens peace, stability and freedom, safety, maritime and overflight security in the South China Sea. The United States and other countries will have to be present and be more involved in the region to prevent Beijing's escalating actions in the South China Sea.