China has disclosed that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force participated in joint drills with the Shandong carrier group near the US naval base of Guam. According to analysts, this is a show of force by the Chinese military, highlighting the PLA’s enhanced capacity for precision hits on moving surface targets or naval bases beyond the first island chain of defense. The disclosure comes as tensions spike in the Taiwan Strait.
The exercise, which took place about 400 nautical miles northwest of Guam last month, involved the Shandong aircraft carrier, a Type 055 destroyer, two Type 052D destroyers, two Type 054A frigates, and a Type 901 replenishment ship. While it is not uncommon for the Chinese navy to carry out drills near Guam, some analysts said that disclosing the rocket force’s participation indicated a deterrence strategy by the Chinese military.
The rocket force’s participation in the drills highlights China‘s improved precision strike capacity, particularly with respect to hitting moving surface targets or naval bases beyond the first island chain of defense. The first island chain usually refers to the archipelagos running through Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, which some military strategists consider to be a formidable barrier for the PLA in exiting or entering the western Pacific.
According to Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing, the exercise aimed to test the precision strike capability of China’s Dongfeng series anti-ship ballistic missiles on the high seas. “It’s more challenging for the rocket force to pinpoint targets precisely beyond the first island chains,” Zhou said. “The CCTV report suggests that the J-15D Roaring Shark [fighter jets] – equipped with electronic countermeasure (ECM) pods – could become the ‘eyes in the sky’ for the rocket force, enabling it to strike targets thousands of kilometers away.”
The participation of the rocket force in the drills is significant as it highlights China’s growing military capability and its increasing willingness to assert itself in the region. The Chinese military has been increasingly active in the region, with the PLA conducting numerous military exercises near Taiwan and the disputed South China Sea.
The drills near Guam come as tensions between China and Taiwan continue to escalate. China has been increasing its military presence in the Taiwan Strait, with the PLA conducting regular military exercises near the island. Taiwan has responded by increasing its own military capability and seeking closer ties with the US and other regional powers.
The US has also increased its military presence in the region, with the US Navy conducting regular freedom of navigation operations near disputed islands in the South China Sea. The US has also provided military aid and support to Taiwan, which has angered China.
The participation of the rocket force in the drills near Guam is likely to be seen as a provocative move by the Chinese military, particularly by the US and its allies in the region. The US has expressed concern over China’s growing military capability and its assertiveness in the region, with some analysts suggesting that the US and China could be headed for a military confrontation in the future.
Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank in Beijing, stated that the recent disclosure of the PLA Rocket Force’s participation in the Shandong carrier group’s drills near Guam could be seen as part of China’s “strategic deterrence” to warn the US and its allies about its improved strike capability as tensions escalate over Taiwan. These drills followed the “Joint Sword” exercise by the Eastern Theatre Command, which oversees the Taiwan Strait, shortly after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen met with the US House speaker during a transit stop in California.
According to Macau-based military observer Antony Wong Tong, the CCTV report impressed upon the US that China’s rocket force can hit Guam using its advanced DF-26 ballistic missile with the support of its aircraft carriers. The DF-26 missile ranges from 4,000km and can hit Guam from the Chinese mainland, while the DF-21 “carrier killer” missile has a strike range of about 1,750km. Both missiles are hypersonic.
Wong stated that the US is preparing to upgrade its missile defense systems on Guam with more comprehensive protection and other assets, referring to the Pentagon’s recent plans to invest USD 1.5 billion in a new missile and air shield for the island base. Meanwhile, the PLA has been testing the precision capability of its missiles on moving targets on the high seas using smaller warships, such as its Type 052D destroyer and Type 071 amphibious transport dock in recent years, said Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung.
Lu added that Chinese aircraft carriers conducting exercises on the high seas always provide good optics for foreign militaries. Hence, the Shandong exercise allowed Beijing to warn the US about intervention in the Taiwan Strait. In August 2020, the PLA launched a DF-21D and DF-26B to hit a moving ship in the South China Sea after a US U-2 spy plane entered a no-fly zone during a Chinese live-fire naval drill in the Bohai Sea off its north coast.
The Shandong drills followed another show of force in the western Pacific by the PLA, where the Liaoning aircraft carrier led the navy’s most potent strike group to the region for a significant drill in December. The 15-day exercise saw the Liaoning sail within 360 nautical miles of Guam. These exercises indicate China’s increasing military assertiveness in the western Pacific, raising concerns among neighboring countries and the US.
The participation of the PLA Rocket Force in the joint drills with the Shandong carrier group near Guam highlights China’s growing military capabilities and its increasing willingness to assert itself in the region. As tensions continue to escalate in the Taiwan Strait, China’s improved precision strike capacity, particularly with respect to hitting moving surface targets or naval bases beyond the first island chain of defense, is a significant concern for the US and its allies.
The participation of the rocket force in the drills near Guam is likely to be seen as a provocative move by the Chinese military, highlighting the potential for a military confrontation between the US and China in the future. As both sides continue to increase their military presence and capabilities in the region, it is essential to find diplomatic solutions to avoid a dangerous escalation of tensions.