In the past five years China has become increasingly aggressive about asserting their authority over greater and greater swathes of the South China Sea through the creation and militarization of artificial islands. One aspect of this expansion that has drawn considerable ire from the US is the movement and subsequent testing of anti-ship cruise missiles to advance positions in the South China Sea in July of 2019. This movement of missiles is the pinnacle of a vast effort by the Chinese to project power into the South China Sea and deter the powerful US presence in the region.
Chinese Missiles in the South China Sea
The movement and testing of Chinese missiles in the South China Sea in July of 2019 marks a dangerous turning point in the region. While China has conducted missile tests over mainland China before, the July tests were the first time a Chinese missile test has been conducted over open waters (1). The missiles were launched from man-made structures near the Spratly Islands and although the exact missiles tested remains unknown, it is believed that the most likely candidates are the DF-21D, also known as China’s “carrier killer,” and a variant of the anti-ship DF-26 (2). Even though the tests have occurred only once, and the US was made known of the missile test before it took place, US officials still found the test to be “disturbing and contrary to Chinese pledges that it would not militarize the disputed waterway” (3). On the other-hand, China “routinely accuses the US Navy of provocation and interference in regional matters” and claims this singular missile test in July of 2019 was just routine drills being carried out by their military (4).
Despite Chinese claims, these missile tests were anything but routine military drills. The fact that this was the first time anti-ship missiles were tested over open waters by the Chinese perfectly demarcates a larger wave of growing boldness and confidence spearheaded by Chinese leader Xi Jinping that has seen the Chinese attempt to further project their power on the international stage. This desire for greater power projection is being tested in the South China Sea through small escalations such as the missile tests whereby the Chinese are pushing boundaries set by the US in order to see how much power they can take from the US in the region.
Chinese Power Projection in the South China Sea and US Deterrence
The Chinese have made a great effort to increase the efficiency and size of their navy in order to successfully project their power into regions such as the South China Sea. China’s navy, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), has transformed their presence in the South China Sea from a coastal defense force to a strong naval presence that has constructed and militarized more than 3,000 dredged-up acres across seven new islands in the region (4).
This huge military build up in the South China Sea has allowed the Chinese to successfully project their power in the region. The question is what has motivated the Chinese to seek such power projection at the possible detriment of relations with the US? The answer lies in the Chinese desire for effective deterrence.
The encirclement of China along their eastern front by the US and their allies has left China feeling vulnerable for decades. The US has military bases in South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines and are on friendly terms with the island of Taiwan. This US barrier along China’s eastern front is detrimental to Chinese security seeing as many of their major cities and ports are within easy striking distance of the US installations that make up this barrier of force. This has led the Chinese to seek ways to effectively deter this US advantage.
The push into the South China Sea provides an opportunity for the Chinese to effectively deter the US advantage. In a head-to-head match-up between the US navy and the PLAN, the numbers do not look good for the Chinese. In a contest in open waters the US navy has clear advantages over the PLAN in naval aviation, submarine forces, surface combat warships, amphibious forces, and naval mine countermeasure forces (5). However, as conflict moves closer to China, the numbers begin to even out as China enjoys a geographical advantage and military specialization that hails back to the PLAN’s days as a coastal defense force (6). This equalizing factor is why China is expanding into the South China Sea by building and militarizing artificial islands. If China can replicate their coastal defense measures further out into the South China Sea, they can negate US naval superiority on open waters and provide an effective buffer between the US barrier of force surrounding China and the Chinese cities and ports along the eastern coast.
The US reaction to Chinese actions in the South China Sea illustrates US worry about their continual deterrence of China and the maintenance of the US barrier. Beginning in May of 2020, “the US has stepped up its naval exercises in the disputed maritime area,” as well as, in the adjoining Philippine Sea (7). This ramping up is a show of force meant to reiterate US strength in the area and is an attempt to show the Chinese the strength of US deterrence in the region as an effective counterbalance to growing Chinese power projection and strength.
The movement of Chinese missiles into the South China Sea is just one facet of a vast effort by the Chinese to increase their levels of deterrence in order to negate the US-led barrier hedging the Chinese in on their eastern front. This battle of wills could become a miniature maritime Cold War between the US and China, or the ongoing talks between Beijing and Washington could de-escalate tensions in the region and result in a quasi-peace. At the current moment, the later of the two options seems the most likely seeing as the leaders of both states have signaled a desire to work towards a solution that would lead to greater relations between the two states.