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Wake-Up Call

Pacific islands are potential missile launch pads


This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 17: Girt by China. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

Anti-ship ballistic missiles are a class of medium-or intermediate-range ballistic missiles pioneered by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, the world leader in developing them. A US intelligence assessment in 2017 noted that “China continues to have the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world. It is developing and testing offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, qualitatively upgrading missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defences.”  In the years since, PLA programs have only accelerated: China now has hypersonic missiles (which travel five to ten times the speed of sound, making them extraordinarily hard to intercept) and hypersonic glide vehicles (space shuttle–like warheads accelerated to hypersonic speed by a ballistic missile, which can orbit the planet and re-enter the atmosphere at a desired point to strike a target anywhere on Earth). The PLA is building missile launch complexes – hectare upon hectare of subterranean silos – in China’s western desert, and constructing replicas of US aircraft carriers and other ships as mobile targets.

As the name suggests, anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) are designed to destroy surface warships, though they can also target fixed locations, such as ports, airbases and, under certain circumstances, submarines. Chinese systems are land-based and road-mobile. Like other ballistic missiles, ASBMs follow a parabolic path, passing briefly through space before descending to their targets. In November 2020 China claimed its ASBMs – the most advanced on the planet – had demonstrated the ability to manoeuvre during descent (thereby avoiding missile defences) and then strike a moving target at sea.

China’s two principal ASBMs are the DF-26, with a range of at least 4000 kilometres, and the DF-21D, which can strike targets at 1685 kilometres. Even with non-nuclear payloads, ASBMs are sufficient to sink major fleet units, including big-deck amphibious ships (such as HMAS Canberra or Adelaide) or aircraft carriers, hence their nickname, “carrier-killers”.

ASBMs matter to Australia because of their potential placement in our region.

When China’s security agreement with Solomon Islands was revealed in April 2022, it prompted much discussion about spheres of influence, introspection about Australia’s colonial legacy in the Pacific and debate about China’s ambitions in the region. In July, under pressure from Australia and others, Solomon Islands prime minister Manasseh Sogavare ruled out a permanent Chinese military base in the country. The cancellation of a Chinese company’s attempt to lease the island of Tulagi, whose harbour makes it an attractive naval base, reduced tension, but a different Chinese company is still pursuing plans to purchase an airstrip and deep-water port at Kolombangara, in the New Georgia group of the northwest Solomons. Chinese advisers have deployed to train Solomon Islands security forces, and the emergence of the Southwest Pacific as a zone of great-power competition remains of concern in Canberra.

China’s ties with Solomon Islands – and other Pacific states – must be understood through the lens of the PLA’s long-range missile capability. To be clear, there is currently no public evidence that Beijing intends to place ASBMs at any of China’s offshore bases or in Chinese-controlled ports across the Indo-Pacific, let alone in the Solomons. But from a military standpoint, strategists understand future threats by analysing capability (which takes years to build) rather than intent (which can change in an instant).

Consider the precedent of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. In March 2015, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying insisted Beijing’s intentions in the islands were peaceful, seeking merely to fulfil China’s international obligations in areas such as maritime search and rescue and disaster prevention. Six months later, during a press conference with Barack Obama, Xi Jinping acknowledged that the PLA was building runways and living facilities in the Spratlys, but claimed “China does not intend to pursue militarisation”. These soothing statements were abruptly walked back in 2016 after the discovery of radars and missile emplacements on the islands. By 2018, the PLA had stationed surface-to- air missiles in the Spratlys, along with cruise missiles able to strike ships 545 kilometres away, and was staging nuclear-capable H-6 strategic bombers through the islands.

Chinese intentions, in other words, were peaceful – until they weren’t. Beijing’s record of deception and obfuscation in the Spratlys (and elsewhere) suggests that capability, rather than stated intent, must guide any threat assessment, especially when it comes to long-range strike assets such as ASBMs.

Maps showing the ranges of PLA missiles often portray them as if measured from the outermost edge of mainland Chinese territory; on such maps, the DF-21D’s range appears to extend to northeastern Borneo, while the DF-26 reaches northwestern Papua New Guinea and falls just short of Darwin. This is unrealistic, of course: the PLA does not deploy missile units right on China’s borders. A more accurate depiction  (based on the location of the PLA Rocket Force’s first DF-26  unit,  thought to be based in Henan  Province) gives a range that reaches Borneo and brushes the Vogelkop  on the northwestern tip of Indonesia’s Irian  Jaya province. 

But ASBMs are not constrained to mainland China.  Both launchers and missiles  can be shipped in the vehicle deck of a car ferry or amphibious ship.  Transported by sea, they could be placed on any Chinese-controlled  island or, more concerningly, at any of the ports and naval bases China  owns or is building across the Indo-Pacific.  These include the harbour  at Hambantota, in Sri Lanka, the naval base under  construction at Ream, in Cambodia, the port of Gwadar, in Pakistan,  and Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, all of which are Chinese-controlled,  while two (Djibouti and Ream) are PLA bases or shared facilities.

Obviously  enough, a Chinese base in Solomon Islands could serve the same  purpose. Forward positioning could occur openly, or covertly with support  from “denial and deception” activities, as during the Soviet deployment  of medium-range  nuclear missiles by cargo ship to Cuba in 1962.

The PLA has the ability to ship missiles to any Chinese-controlled port facility, then operate them from container-based launchers or from a truck-like system (called a transporter-erector-launcher), with or without the knowledge of the government concerned. A pre-developed pattern of “lily pads” – a network of regional sites set up to receive missiles and launchers when needed – would enable rapid deployment of ASBMs in a crisis or conflict.

If Solomon Islands became part of a Chinese lily-pad network, the implications would be profound. DF-26s in the Solomons could strike ships anywhere west of Fiji or Tuvalu, south of the Marshall Islands, north of Brisbane, or east of Wewak, in Papua New Guinea. They could prevent ships leaving Cairns, Townsville and Brisbane, block transit through the Torres Strait, interdict export terminals in Queensland and New South Wales, and deny movement around Vanuatu, Nauru and New Caledonia. Shipping routes connecting Australia and New Zealand with Asia and the United States – which pass through the Solomon Sea, between New Ireland and Bougainville, carrying much of Australia’s maritime trade – would be threatened. Australia’s energy imports, critical to every aspect of national life, would be severely impacted, while our ability to protect fibre-optic cables and other offshore infrastructure would be hampered, since naval forces would need to avoid the PLA’s missile bubble.

This is a 1182-word extract of a 3,632-word essay in AFA17 - Girt by China: Power play in the Pacific

This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 17: Girt by China. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.