The “carrier killer” strikes again. This week the Pentagon released its latest annual report on Chinese military power, warning that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has accumulated “staggering amounts of new military hardware.” Among its new panoply are DF-21D and DF-26B medium-range ballistic missiles, each of which comes in a ship killing variant. The report estimates the firing range of the DF-21D at over 900 miles. Meanwhile, the DF-26 can reputedly target moving ships nearly 2,500 miles distant.
That’s a lot of sea space. All of Southeast Asia—and far beyond—now lies within missile reach.
As though to preface and punctuate the Pentagon report, PLA rocketeers lofted a DF-21D and a DF-26 into the South China Sea in the days prior to its release. The missile tests came shortly after two U.S. Navy aircraft-carrier expeditionary forces cruised the embattled sea to dispute China’s claim to sovereignty over most of it. Commentators widely—and accurately—interpreted the tests as a reply to the U.S. deployment.
Almost as an aside, reports on the missile tests indicated that the DF-26 launch came out of Qinghai, deep in the backcountry of northwestern China. This is significant. It puts Washington and the region on notice that the PLA can target hostile shipping with rocket forces that are virtually invulnerable to counterattack. DF-21D and DF-26 missiles are fired from trucks, making them hard to detect, engage, and destroy. But positioning them in the continental interior adds an extra layer of political difficulty. PLA overseers are evidently defying potential adversaries to strike into the Chinese homeland and infuriate the Chinese people to Beijing’s benefit. Giving the order to hit coastal sites would be hard enough for any foreign commander. Giving the order to venture far inland strains credulity to its breaking point. That’s deterrence.
Message: Fortress China now spans all of China.