China’s Growing Surface-to-Air Missile Threat

Beijing is further fueling the militarization of the South China Sea.

The HQ-9 missile launcher episode, which erupted barely a month ago, has somewhat subsided. But the long-term implications of this deployment should not be overlooked.

Beijing had parried accusations of militarizing the South China Sea (SCS), with Chinese defense authorities calling such deployments “lawful and reasonable development of defense facilities.” But how reasonable can such moves be, when it is plausible that the HQ-9 only presages what is in store for SCS peace and stability in the long run—that of a growing Chinese surface-to-air missile (SAM) threat in the disputed area?


A Strong Pretext for Beijing?

In January, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) chief Admiral Wu Shengli issued a veiled warning that the amount of military facilities China builds in the SCS depends on the threat level. In fact, China has long lamented the United States’ persistent military surveillance activities.

After the HQ-9 deployment emerged, Beijing justified its actions with American military activities which had taken place thus far, notably the B-52 strategic bomber flypast in late 2015 that came close to China’s artificial islands, which Chinese defense authorities condemned as a “serious military provocation.” But the PLA would have to contend with the frequent presence of U.S. Navy maritime patrol aircraft, a prospect which is further raised following an agreement to rotate P-8 Poseidon flights out of Singapore, as well as patrols by Washington’s allies including the Australians and Japanese.

The HQ-9 deployment is therefore a manifestation of Beijing’s pent-up frustration over such activities. Not backing down in the face of criticisms, not long after the HQ-9 deployment, PLA fighter jets deployed to Woody Island in a demonstration of Chinese resolve.

The “routine operations” by the John C. Stennis carrier strike group in the SCS and pledge to boost FONOPS shows that Washington has no intention to back down. This would inevitably prompt Beijing to carry through its promise of deploying “limited and necessary national defense facilities on its own territory,” in the words of Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who called it a “right granted by international law to sovereign states.”

To deal with pesky foreign surveillance planes, SAMs may provide the PLA more options and greater flexibility in calibrating its response—all at lower costs compared to having to scramble interceptors and burn expensive jet fuel.

Should the HQ-9 prove sufficient, then, interceptors need not scramble and engage in potentially dangerous encounters similar to the one in August 2014, in which a PLANAF J-11BH allegedly made threatening close-proximity passes during an intercept of a P-8 off Hainan Island.


Extended Deployment Further South?

With its approximately two-hundred-kilometer slant range, when placed on Woody Island, the land-mobile HQ-9 batteries would optimally provide air defense cover for the entire Paracel Island group. In times of peace, these missiles would give aircrews of foreign surveillance planes something to worry about, even when flying at high altitudes.

But using such high-performance SAMs against slow, lumbering maritime patrol aircraft would be overkill. A more plausible mission envisaged of the HQ-9 deployment would be to protect major PLA facilities in the Paracels against enemy air/missile strikes. As a reverse-engineered variant of the venerable Russian S-300, the HQ-9 may have a similar ability to deal with low-altitude threats such as cruise missiles.

Given its extensive coverage, besides providing localized air defense for the Paracels, the HQ-9 would pose a more immediate danger to Vietnamese aircraft operating in the vicinity, should another maritime standoff similar to the May 2014 episode over the Chinese oil rig HYSY981 erupt again. The HQ-9 would also frustrate Vietnam’s undersea operations, by making it difficult to neutralize the PLA Navy antisubmarine helicopter base on Duncan Island.