Recent tensions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea have caught the attention of countries in the region. However, the current trajectory of China’s build-up in naval power and especially the increases in its amphibious capabilities is changing the balance of power.
On Dec. 22, 2006, China completed its first Type 071 amphibious landing platform dock Kunlun Shan, No. 998, a vessel with a displacement of 17,000 to 20,000 tonnes, which was deployed in the South China Sea.
The Kunlun Shan can carry a marine battalion, with between 500 and 800 troops and 15 to 20 amphibious armored vehicles together with logistical backup. In 2010, it was deployed to the Gulf of Aden off Somalia to protect ships from pirates. Late last year, a second Type 071 ship, the Jing Gang Shan, was sent to the South China Sea. It is reported that a third vessel is now close to completion, with construction having been started on a fourth.
Observers predict that 16 ships of this class are to be built.
There were also reports in April 2010 that China was looking to obtain the advanced, large-scale Zubr-class and mid-sized Murena-class high-speed landing hovercraft from Russia. The Zubr-class hovercraft can carry three combat tanks, 10 armored troop transporters and 140 troops, or 500 troops.
These vessels can travel 300 nautical miles (556km) at a speed of 55 knots (102kph), and would be able to cross the Taiwan Strait, taking the most direct route, in under four hours.
The People’s Liberation Army wants future military activity to be under-the-radar, fast, comprehensive and penetrating, and is now working to realize that plan. There are four main objectives behind these developments: first, to make preparations for the South China Sea issue; second, to support emergency operations as and when they emerge; third, to address non-traditional security threats; and, lastly, to ensure military readiness to resolve the Taiwan issue.
Taiwan’s national defense strategic goals have changed in recent years. In March 2009, the Ministry of National Defense released its first Quadrennial Defense Review, in which it said that adjustments in the structuring and scale of the national defense forces would be undertaken “as requirements dictated,” within budgetary and manpower constraints.
The current structure is focused on denying the enemy the ability to make landfall or secure a foothold, focusing the national defense budget on primary forces and developing basic military strength and asymmetric combat ability.
In 2009, the Ministry of National Defense confirmed that any future military victory depended on the destruction of the enemy’s amphibious fleet, for the strategic reasons listed above.
However, given the speed at which China is expanding its military capabilities, Taiwan realistically has less than 10 years in which to develop an effective defense capability.
Should Beijing opt to seek unification by force of arms and assuming that Taiwan would not have superiority in the air or on water, an adequate close-range submarine fleet would be crucial for our ability to deter or intercept an amphibious fleet speeding across the Taiwan Strait.
However, in light of the government’s national defense policies over the past four years, and its prevarication on the question of building an indigenous submarine, one serious concern is that by the time it finally makes a decision, it will be too late to make any discernible difference.