Top US commander in the Pacific sounds the alarm over China’s ‘wall of SAMs’ in the South China Sea

Aerial imagery of the Fiery Cross Reef located in the South China Sea. Getty Images
  • The top US commander in the Pacific warned Saturday that China has turned the so-called “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea into a “great wall of [surface-to-air missiles].”
  • In addition to SAMs, China has also deployed anti-ship missiles, giving it the ability to target both enemy ships and aircraft.
  • The US regularly sends bombers and warships into the contested waterway to challenge China’s efforts to assert dominance.
  • The deployment of Chinese anti-access/area-denial weapons to the South China Sea could give China a critical edge in any conflict.

The US has time and time again stressed that its military will “fly and sail wherever international law allows and our national interests demand,” but Chinese defensive deployments in the disputed South China Sea threaten to throw a wrench into those plans.

China is actively strengthening its military posture in the the contested waterway, where it has turned “what was a great wall of sand just three years ago [into] a great wall of SAMs,” Adm. Philip Davidson, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, warned Saturday, according to Breaking Defence.

The deployment of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) is a part of a larger effort by the Chinese military to harden outposts and extend its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities to limit military activity in the area while it attempts to project power at greater distances from the Chinese mainland. In addition to SAMs, like the HQ-9 systems deployed throughout the South China Sea, China has also deployed anti-ship missiles, such as the YJ-12 and YJ-62s, to occupied territories.

The locations and ranges of these platforms can be seen in this map released by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in its latest report to Congress.

Location and Effective Range of PLA South China Sea Deployments
Location and Effective Range of PLA South China Sea Deployments US-China Economic and Security Review Commission

China militarily dominates two of the three island groups that composed the so-called “strategic triangle,” an area made up of the Paracel Islands, the Spratly Islands, and the Scarborough Shoal.

While Washington characterises Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea as “militarization,” Beijing argues that it is simply responding to US provocations.

“If somebody is flexing their muscles on your doorstep, can’t you at least get a slingshot?” the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked.

Over the past few months, US Air Force B-52H Stratofortress heavy long-range bombers have made regular flights over the South China Sea, and US Navy warships have conducted joint exercises and freedom-of-navigation operations in the area. The US insists that these activities are permitted by international law and necessary for the preservation of a free and open Indo-Pacific region free of coercion and aggression.

The South China Sea is a dangerous flashpoint in the tense US-China relationship. In late September, a Chinese destroyer challenged a US Navy vessel during a routine freedom-of-navigation operation in the Spratly Islands. The Chinese warship nearly collided with the destroyer USS Decatur, which was forced to change course at the last minute to avoid a catastrophe.

The deployment of A2/AD platforms to the South China Sea gives the Chinese navy, one of the largest in the world but inferior to the US Navy, more teeth in the event of a conflict – and one the US military is not guaranteed to win.

A recent report evaluating the 2018 National Defence Strategy warned that the US “could face a decisive military defeat” if it went to war with Russia or China today.

“The U.S. military would face daunting challenges in establishing air superiority or sea control and retaking territory lost early in a conflict,” the report warned. “Against an enemy equipped with advanced anti-access/area denial capabilities, attrition of U.S. capital assets – ships, planes, tanks – could be enormous.”

Davidson said during his confirmation hearing earlier this year that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” Nonetheless, the US military continues to push back against China in the region.