China test fires ‘aircraft carrier killer’ ballistic missiles into the South China Sea

China launched a series of ballistic missiles into the South China Sea this week, according to United States defense officials, part of a flurry of military exercises extending thousands of miles along the country’s coastline, escalating tensions over waterways.

Beijing claims almost all of the vast South China Sea as its sovereign territory and has stepped-up efforts to assert its dominance over the resource-rich waters in recent years, transforming a string of obscure reefs and atolls into heavily fortified man-made islands and increasing its naval activity in the region.

China’s territorial ambitions are contested by at least five other countries, and have been rejected outright by the United States which has declared China’s claims to be illegal under international law.

American media reported that the Chinese military launched four medium-range missiles from mainland China on Wednesday. The missiles impacted in the northern reaches of the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands, known as the Xisha Islands in China, the official said.

The Pentagon on Thursday later described the drills as the latest in a long string of Chinese actions intended to “assert unlawful maritime claims” that disadvantage neighboring countries. The comments follow the announcement Wednesday that the US government will impose sanctions on dozens of Chinese companies for assisting Beijing in the development and militarization of artificial islands in the South China Sea.

Chinese defense official, Senior Col. Wu Qian said on Thursday that China had carried out drills in waters and airspace between Qingdao in northeastern China and the disputed Spratly islands (Nansha) in the South China Sea, but did not mention the missiles outright.

According to Wu, the drills “did not target any country.”

The missiles reportedly used were DF-21D and DF-26 missiles, both of which have been touted in Chinese propaganda as highly accurate and able to hit ships moving at sea.

“China’s DF-26 and DF-21D are the world’s first ballistic missiles capable of targeting large and medium-sized vessels, earning them the title of ‘aircraft carrier killers,'” the state-run Global Times said on Thursday.

Wednesday’s tests come a month after two US aircraft carrier strike groups, led by the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Reagan, completed combined exercises in the South China Sea for the first time in six years.

The US has increased its naval activity in the region in recent months, carrying out routine patrols, referred to as freedom of navigation operations. On Thursday a US guided-missile destroyer sailed near the Chinese-claimed Paracel Islands.