The Chinese military has responded to the US Navy’s freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea (SCS) by claiming to have deployed missiles with the potential to destroy medium-sized and large ships.

Speaking to China Central Television on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the government announced that the military had deployed DF-26 ballistic missiles in the north-west plateau, following a US Navy mission in which the guided-missile destroyer USS McCampbell sailed near to the Paracel Islands. The Paracels are a group of contested islands claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam in the SCS.

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Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang told CNN on Monday: “The US action violated the Chinese laws and international laws, infringed China’s sovereignty, damaged regional peace, security, and order. China will take necessary actions to protect state sovereignty.”

DF-26 ballistic missiles are capable of hitting targets up to 3,400 miles away, using nuclear or conventional warheads.

US Navy Lieutenant junior grade Rachel McMarr said in a statement: “McCampbell sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands to challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access to the waterways as governed by international law.”

The US Navy’s operation is the first conducted since the ratification of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018, which allows the US commander-in-chief to continue freedom of navigation operations in the area.

Increasing military presence in the SCS

Tensions have increased in the SCS in recent years, catalysed in part by the Chinese Government constructing fortifications and grounded long-range bombers on disputed islands. Last year, President Xi Jinping oversaw the nation’s largest naval parade in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands.

In November 2018, the US Navy conducted a freedom of navigation operation close to the Paracel Islands, sailing the USS Chancellorsville in the vicinity.  On 30 September, the USS Decatur’s freedom of navigation operation near the Spratly islands in the SCS caused a near collision incident with the Chinese destroyer Lanzhou.

On 31 December, Institute of Marine Safety and Cooperation president Dai Xu said on the Chinese military’s website: “If a US warship illegally enters into Chinese territorial waters again, two Chinese warships should be sent, one to stop it and the other to bump against and sink it.”

The latest US Navy operation involving USS McCampbell comes at a time when US and Chinese officials, including President Trump and President Xi, are conducting the first talks in Beijing over the current trade war since last year’s G20 summit in Argentina.

Speaking at a meeting with the Central Military Commission in Beijing on 4 January 2019, President Xi said that the People’s Liberation army should focus its efforts to enhance combat readiness. According to Chinese state news firm Xinhua, Xi said the military should “upgrade commanding capability of joint operations, foster new combat forces, and improve military training under combat conditions”.