Beijing has moved to make good on its threat to ‘sink two aircraft carriers’, stating it has activated ‘ship killer’ ballistic missiles in response to a US Navy challenge earlier this week.

The state-controlled Global Times news service overnight reported its newest ballistic missile weapon system, introduced as recently as April last year, are being deployed to positions best suited at striking vessels in the East and South China Sea.

The announcement follows a Chinese Vice Admiral’s threat stating the best way to force the US to ‘back away’ from Beijing’s attempts to annex the disputed waterways would be to ‘sink two aircraft carriers’. He boasted China could do so with the introduction of new ballistic missile systems.

But the announcement of the deployment comes just days after a US warship passed through the Taiwan Strait and close to the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands) — claimed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan — to assert the international rules of the sea which govern rights of free passage.

“The timing of the report sparked discussions among Chinese military observers online, as it came after the USS McCambell, a US guided-missile destroyer, trespassed into China’s territorial waters off the Xisha Islands on Monday without permission from the Chinese government,” the government mouthpiece noted.

Military aircraft and warships had been sent to warn the US vessel away, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said at a daily briefing earlier this week.

But the later state-controlled media report about the missiles indicates Beijing is beginning to lose its patience.

“The DF-26 is China’s new generation of intermediate-range ballistic missile capable of targeting medium and large ships at sea,” the Global Times warned. “It can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads.”

The missiles are ballistic, meaning they boost their warheads high into the edge of space.

These warheads then plunge at very high speeds back down towards their targets.

Unlike conventional, shorter-range cruise missiles, the DF-26 will not be positioned close to the Taiwan Strait or on the disputed islands themselves.

Instead, Chinese state-run television service CCTV reports the truck-mounted weapons are positioned in a distant outpost: “The DF-26 is attached to a brigade under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force that operates in Northwest China’s plateau and desert areas”.

“A mobile missile launch from deep in the country’s interior is more difficult to intercept,” the Global Times quoted an expert as explaining.

He said the DF-26 has enough range — reputed to be some 4500km — to cover the South China Sea, even when launched from deep within China itself.

“During the initial phase of a ballistic missile launch, the missile is relatively slow and not difficult to detect, making it an easier target for enemy antimissile installations.

“After the missile enters a later stage, its speed is so high that chances for interception are significantly lower.”

The state media report went so far as to highlight the significant US naval base in the middle of the Pacific at Guam was within range of the missiles.

“The report is a good reminder that China is capable of safeguarding its territory,” it stated.

The US in recent weeks has called on its international allies — including Australia — to ramp up pressure on Beijing’s attempt to assert control over the international shipping lanes and fisheries through an increased tempo of ‘freedom of navigation operations’ (FONOPS) by their warships.

The US insists it is not interested in who owns the islands.

Instead, it says it wants to maintain the freedom of access practised through the busy trade hub since the end of World War II.

Recently, however, Beijing has asserted what it claims to be traditional sovereignty over the entirety of the South and East China Seas. An international arbitration court rejected this claim, but China has chosen to ignore the ruling.

Nor does international law allow territorial rights to be applied to the waters around artificial islands. Beijing has recently completed a chain of fortresses on what had previously been coral reefs and demanded that all nations respect its 12 nautical mile (22km) sovereign territorial claim around them.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu told reporters that China had demanded the USS McCampbell leave waters around the Paracel Islands.

“Relevant actions by US vessels violate Chinese and international laws, infringe on China’s sovereignty, and undermine peace, stability and good order in relevant waters,” Lu said.

But international legal institutions have rejected this claim.

“We will continue to take necessary measures to safeguard national sovereignty and security,” he added, potentially referring to the later announcement of the DF-26 missiles.

The spat comes ahead of Beijing-Washington trade talks this week.