Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

PLA opens missile base; S China Sea in range

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 August, 2010, 12:00am

A new missile base has been operating in northern Guangdong for a month amid rising tensions over the disputed South China Sea.

The base in Shaoguan was garrisoned by the PLA Second Artillery's 96166 unit weeks before last Sunday's 83rd anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army, the Shaoguan Daily and a local government website said.

The Second Artillery is the PLA's strategic missile force.

While the reports did not directly mention the missile base and gave no details about the 96166 unit, the news still attracted a great deal of attention from military observers.

They believe the base will be equipped with either DF-21C ballistic missiles or CJ-10 long-distance cruise missiles - both said to be capable of precise strikes over more than 2,000 kilometres, effectively putting Taiwan as well as the Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea within range.

China has territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei over islands in the South China Sea.

The PLA set up a similar base in nearby Qingyuan , Guangdong, in June last year, according to an earlier mainland media report.

Both Shaoguan and Qingyuan are in mountainous areas in northern Guangdong - ideal locations to hide strategic missile forces.

The Washington-based Project 2049 Institute says Beijing plans to build yet another missile base, in Sanya , Hainan , soon.

There is speculation that another missile could be deployed in Shaoguan - the DF-21D, an anti-ship ballistic missile dubbed the 'carrier killer' whose existence has been widely reported but never confirmed.

If China can successfully develop an anti-ship ballistic weapon such as the DF-21D, it will achieve a significant advance in weapons technology.

The US and the then Soviet Union agreed never to pursue such weapons as part of arms-limitation agreements. Its key flaw is that to fire one in a time of conflict would risk a catastrophic miscalculation by an enemy, who could mistake the missile's flight for an incoming nuclear weapon, and respond accordingly.

Flying in an arc through the upper atmosphere, ballistic missiles are traditionally used to hit large fixed positions, such as cities, rather than a single moving target.

The Project 2049 report, released this week, says the operations in Shaoguan 'could complicate the strategic calculus in Asia, and the disputed South China Sea in particular'.

The report says that the Second Artillery plans to finalise the design of the DF-21D by the end of this year and 'the establishment of a permanent deployment capability often coincides with the design finalisation of a new missile'.

Alexander Huang Chieh-cheng, a professor of the Graduate Institute of International Affairs and Strategic Studies at Tamkang University in Taipei, said the PLA's new deployment would make its neighbours in Southeast Asia nervous.

'The PLA's every move has its own specific strategic intent.

'But this time, I don't think it wants to threaten Taiwan,' he said. 'With many areas of the South China Sea able to be covered by its DF-21 series missiles, Southeast Asian countries, especially those with territorial disputes with Beijing, would strongly feel the threat of a rising China.'

Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said the establishment of the two missile bases was a hint that the missile force would play a role in defending Beijing's core interest in the South China Sea.

However, Hong Kong-based military observer Ma Dingsheng said it was far too early to determine the real aim of moving the missile force's bases to Guangdong, because the move was not yet finished.

'The move just shows the real mobility of the missile force, which is capable of responding to our national strategic requirements in various regions. But I don't think it's a significant strategic change,' he said.

'The outside world, especially the US, always exaggerates the power of the DF-21C and -21D. In fact, so far we can't find any concrete evidence to prove the missile could accurately hit a moving target at sea out to a range of 1,500 to 2,000 kilometres.'