• China fired a barrage of medium-range missiles into the South China Sea on Wednesday, a US defense official told Insider.
  • According to the South China Morning Post, the missiles were anti-ship missiles, specifically the DF-26B and DF-21D.
  • A US defense official said the launch appears to be part of a previously-planned exercise, but it comes amid elevated tensions between the US and China in the strategic waterway.
  • On Thursday, the US Navy destroyer USS Mustin conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation near the contested Parcel Islands, challenging “unlawful restrictions” imposed by China and others, the US Navy said in a statement.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The Chinese military fired a barrage of four mid-range missiles into the waters of the contested waters of the South China Sea on Wednesday, a US defense official told Insider Thursday.

The Pentagon is still assessing what types of missiles were fired, but the South China Morning Post, citing a source close to the Chinese military, reports that the missiles, which impacted between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands, were anti-ship missiles.

SCMP reports the missiles were DF-26B and DF-21D ballistic missiles, weapons sometimes referred to as “carrier killer” missiles that have estimated ranges of 4,000 km and 1,800 km respectively.

A US defense official explained to Insider that Wednesday’s missile launch appears to have been part of a previously-planned exercise rather than a reaction to any specific incident. While that may be the case, the launch comes at a time of heightened tensions between the US and China.

In mid-July, the US Department of State drew Beijing’s ire with a sharply-worded statement rejecting China’s vast claims to the South China Sea and condemning China’s “predatory” moves to get its way in the strategic waterway. Beijing called the statement “irresponsible.”

A day later, a US Navy destroyer conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation challenging China’s claims to the disputed Spratly Islands.

The US also been regularly sending carrier strike groups into the South China Sea lately. In July, China’s foreign ministry accused the US of sending “large fleets of advanced military vessels and aircraft to the South China Sea to flex its muscles and stir up troubles.”

A source close to the Chinese military told SCMP that Wednesday’s missile launch is “China’s response to the potential risks brought by the increasingly frequent incoming US warplanes and military vessels in the South China Sea.”

In early July, China’s state-affiliated Global Times argued that the “South China Sea is fully within the grasp of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army,” and “any US aircraft carrier movement in the region is solely at the pleasure of the PLA.”

The incendiary paper pointed to Chinese anti-ship missiles, specifically the DF-21D and DF-26.

The US Navy responded on Twitter, writing that it is “not intimidated” by the Chinese arsenal and that the carriers are there “at our discretion.”

Later that month, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that “American aircraft carriers have been in the South China Sea in the Indo-Pacific since World War II and will continue to be there, and we are not going to be stopped by anybody.”

Commenting on China’s missile launch, Vice Adm. Scott Conn, commander of the US Navy’s 3rd Fleet, said Wednesday that “the US Navy has 38 ships underway today in the Indo-Pacific region, including the South China Sea.”

He said that “we continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international laws allow to demonstrate our commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific and reassure our allies and partners.”

On Thursday, the US Navy destroyer USS Mustin conducted a freedom-of-navigation operation near the contested Parcel Islands, challenging “unlawful restrictions” imposed by China and others, the US Navy said in a statement.

China took control of the Parcels by force in the 1970s and has since constructed military outposts in the area, as the country has done elsewhere in the region.

The US Department of Commerce issued a statement Wednesday announcing sanctions against 24 Chinese companies involved in Chinese island building in the South China Sea, further escalating tensions.

“The United States, China’s neighbors, and the international community have rebuked the CCP’s sovereignty claims to the South China Sea and have condemned the building of artificial islands for the Chinese military,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

The Chinese foreign ministry criticized the move, calling it “unjustified,” and accused the US of “meddling in China’s internal affairs.” A spokesman said that “China will take firm measures to safeguard Chinese businesses and citizens’ lawful interests.”

China has also expressed concerns in recent days about an American U-2 spy plane that it said flew through a no-fly zone near a Chinese military exercise in the Bohai Sea earlier this week, calling it an “obvious provocation.”

Speaking at a press briefing Thursday, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, said that “the US has increased its efforts to pressurize and provoke China” lately. He added that “the Chinese stance is always clear in this regard: we oppose and are unafraid of the US provocations.”

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