arlier this week China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force most likely tested a DF-21D or DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile—sometimes know as “carrier-killers”—in the South China Sea. Details remain sketchy, as Chinese spokesmen have remained close-mouthed about the exercise. The test came on the heels of news last May that PLA weaponeers had installed anti-ship cruise missiles and surface-to-air missiles on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef, west of the Philippine Islands. Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn told CNBC that this week’s missile test contradicted China’s “claim to want to bring peace to the region and obviously actions like this are coercive acts meant to intimidate other South China Sea claimants.”
Col. Eastburn has it half right. Beijing clearly wants to coerce others. But the test was entirely consistent with its claim to want to bring peace to the region. It does want peace; it simply wants to transform the nature of that peace, and force is a means to that end. If Chinese Communist Party prelates in Beijing get their way, they—not foreign governments or international institutions—will make the rules in the South China Sea. They will issue laws or policy decrees mandating or proscribing certain actions in regional seaways, and others will obey. Peace will prevail.
The missile tests are the latest installment in China’s effort to put steel behind its claims to “indisputable sovereignty” over the waters, skies, and land features within the “nine-dashed line” it has sketched on the map of Southeast Asia. The nine-dashed line encloses some 80-90 percent of the South China Sea, including not just contested Spratly and Paracel islands, atolls, and reefs but also wide swathes of fellow Southeast Asian claimants’ “exclusive economic zones.” It’s worth noting, for instance, that Mischief Reef, one of the island bastions now festooned with missiles, lies deep within the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Beijing purloined it from Manila in the mid-1990s and progressively built the reef into the military fastness it is today.