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China has built a huge military presence in the region, and observers have warned of a terrifying weapon which could pose yet more of a threat to US vessels. China’s long term ambitions in the South China Sea were accompanied by the development of a weapon called ‘Assassin’s Mace’. It is a unique missile that has generated heavy interest in military circles over the past five years. When unveiled in 2015, Beijing boasted about the weapon formally known as the Dongfeng 21D. The DF-26 has the potential to reach US military bases on Guam with its range of 1,800 to 2,500 miles.
The missile could also be a threat to US carriers if equipped with an anti-ship ballistic missile warhead, due to its targeting capability.
Estimates have suggested the missile has a range of up to 1,000 miles and may be able to travel up to 10 times the speed of sound, making it virtually impossible to intercept once launched.
Another threat in the South China Sea posed by Beijing is the increased presence of nuclear submarines.
In 2014, China deployed the Jin-class ballistic missile submarine for the first time, each armed with 12 JL-2 nuclear missiles.
Operating from a state-of-the-art base near Sanya, on Hainan island’s southernmost tip, Jin-class submarines started patrolling the depths of the South China Sea.
But in order to be within range of the US, they had to be able to break out into the Pacific Ocean.
Roughly contiguous to China’s “nine-dash line” territorial claim in the South China Sea, the continental shelf drops to a deep basin of around 4,000m, offering better cover for submarines.
That is why some experts believe the deeper waters of the South China Sea, and China’s enhanced anti-submarine efforts there, may offer a bastion for Chinese submarines in the future.
Analyst Alexander Neill warned in 2016 that nuclear submarines are central to China’s plans in the region.
He said in his BBC article: “Mounting concern within the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) over the vulnerability of its land-based nuclear deterrent and the ability to deliver a retaliatory second strike has prompted China to place some of its nuclear warheads on board submarines.”
A similar warning was made in a report by US group Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, studying China’s island bases in the South China Sea.
The group says some buildings “host what are most likely anti-aircraft guns”, which have visible gun barrels in satellite images, while others are probably what it terms close-in weapons systems.
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AMTI said: “These gun and probable close-in weapons systems emplacements show that Beijing is serious about defence of its artificial islands in case of an armed contingency in the South China Sea.
“Among other things, they would be the last line of defence against cruise missiles launched by the United States or others against these soon-to-be-operational air bases.”
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