China launched its military buildup in the middle of the 1990s with a top priority: Keep the US at bay in any conflict by making the waters off the Chinese coast a death trap. Now, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is preparing to challenge US power farther afield.
China’s shipyards have launched the PLA Navy’s first two Type 075 amphibious assault ships, which are to form the spearhead of an expeditionary force to play a role similar to that of the US Marine Corps.
Similar to the corps, the new force would be self-contained — capable of deploying solo with all of its supporting weapons to fight in distant conflicts or demonstrate Chinese military power.
Illustration: Mountain People
The 40,000-tonne Type 075 ships are a kind of small aircraft carrier with accommodation for up to 900 troops and space for heavy equipment and landing craft, said Western military experts who have studied satellite images and photographs of the new vessels.
The warships would at first carry up to 30 helicopters at first, but later could carry fighter jets, if China built short takeoff and vertical landing aircraft like the US’ F-35B jets.
The first Type 075 was launched in September last year and the second in April, China’s official military media reported, while the May edition of a Congressional Research Service report said that a third is under construction.
Eventually, the PLA Navy could have seven or more of these ships, China’s official military media reported.
The media quoted Chinese military commentators as saying that China’s shipyards are building and launching amphibious ships so rapidly that it is like “dropping dumplings” into water.
The military rivalry between China and the US is only growing sharper.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday last week said that most of Beijing’s claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea are illegal, while China said that the US position raised tensions in the region and undermined stability.
China’s nascent amphibious forces still lag far behind those of the US, but the speed of China’s military rise has shifted the balance of power in Asia. Over the past two decades, China has deployed a massive surface and subsurface fleet to deter potential enemies from sailing in its coastal waters.
As part of an accelerated modernization of the PLA since Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) came to power in 2012, these amphibious ships and their specially trained marines would boost Beijing’s firepower and political influence far from its shores, Chinese and Western military analysts have said.
As shipyards churn out amphibious vessels, China is expanding its force of marines under the command of the PLA Navy. These troops are being trained and equipped to make landings and fight their way ashore.
China has 25,000 to 35,000 marines, the US and Japanese militaries have estimated — a sharp increase from about 10,000 in 2017.
“Without an amphibious force, any military force is greatly constrained in where and how it can conduct operations,” said retired US Marine Corps colonel Grant Newsham, a researcher at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies who advised the Japanese military on the formation of Tokyo’s own Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which was formed in 2018.
“Jets can drop bombs and ships can fire missiles at the shore — but you might need infantry to go ashore and kill the enemy and occupy the ground,” he said.
The Chinese Ministry of National Defense and the Pentagon did not immediately respond to questions.
The PLA marines have also become an important tool in the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) efforts to showcase China’s increasingly powerful military to its domestic audience. The state-controlled media regularly reports on the grueling training and military skills of the Jiaolong (Sea Dragon, 蛟龍) Commandos, a unit from the marines special forces brigade based on Hainan off southern China.
“We should be the point of the sword in joint operations to strike terror into the heart of the enemy,” Jiaolong company commander Gong Kaifeng (龔凱峰) said in a report last year on the unit’s training, which was broadcast on state television.
When the Type 075 vessels enter service, China would have the capacity to combine them with its other new amphibious and support vessels, Chinese and foreign analysts have said.
These self-contained fleets could be sent to distant conflicts, deployed as a show of force to deter potential enemies, or to protect Chinese investments and citizens abroad.
They would also allow the PLA to provide disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, competing with the US for prestige and soft power.
For Beijing, these amphibious forces would also contribute to the PLA’s mounting capacity to make a landing on Taiwan, or seize other strategically important or disputed territory in China’s offshore regions, amphibious warfare specialists have said.
Xi has said that unifying Taiwan with China is a vital step in realizing Beijing’s dream of a powerful, rejuvenated nation. In a key speech on Jan. 2 last year calling on Taiwan to open talks on peaceful reunification, Xi said that this longstanding dispute could not be deferred indefinitely.
“We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means,” Xi said.
China has this year stepped up military operations and exercises around Taiwan, US and Taiwanese military analysts have said.
In Taipei, the Ministry of National Defense said that PLA Air Force jets, including at least one bomber and a fighter, briefly entered Taiwan’s air defense identification zone on June 22, before being warned off by the Republic of China Air Force.
It was the eighth such encounter in two weeks, the ministry said.
Taiwan launched its annual Han Kuang military exercises on Monday last week with an emphasis on joint operations between land, sea and air forces to defend the nation from attack, the ministry said.
The exercise also involved an expanded role for reservists as the military strives to boost its firepower, government officials said.
“Our military is always working hard to prepare for war, closely monitoring the dynamics of the Chinese communists’ military and the development of the situation in the Taiwan Strait,” the ministry said. “We have a complete defense plan and appropriate actions to deal with the threat of the Chinese communists attacking Taiwan and the seizure of offshore islands, which can ensure national security.”
Experts on amphibious forces have said that the PLA has powerful army units that are trained and equipped to make the kind of landings necessary for an invasion of Taiwan, adding that in expanding the marines, PLA military planners are looking at operations across the globe, in places where China has extensive offshore investments.
These commercial interests are likely to multiply as Beijing presses ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious bid to put China at the center of global trading routes.
China’s marines would also be important to staff what is expected to become a network of strategic military bases around the world, including fortifications on territory that Beijing has seized in the South China Sea, Chinese and Western military commentators have said.
Beijing has deployed marines and their armored vehicles to its first overseas base at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, Pentagon reports said, adding that marines have also been deployed on the flotillas that China sends on naval anti-piracy missions to the Gulf of Aden.
“We are currently only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” said Ian Easton, senior director of the Project 2049 Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based security research group. “Ten years from now, China is almost certainly going to have marine units deployed at locations all over the world. The Chinese Communist Party’s ambitions are global. Its interests are global. It plans to send military units wherever its global strategic interests require.”
Short of war, capable amphibious forces would become a powerful diplomatic or coercive tool for Beijing, military analysts have said.
Washington has so far had a monopoly on this type of engagement with other governments, routinely sending marine expeditionary units abroad for port visits, joint training exercises and disaster relief.
US expeditionary flotillas, packed with US Marines, all their heavy equipment and air support, are a potent reminder of US power.
A raw demonstration came in a tense period of 1999 when an Australian-led UN peacekeeping force intervened to stop violence in what was then Indonesian-controlled East Timor.
US forces did not become heavily involved on the ground, but the presence of the USS Belleau Wood, a 40,000-tonne amphibious assault ship carrying 900 US Marines and heavy lift and attack helicopters, served as a formidable backup as UN troops restored order without any significant resistance from Indonesia.
China’s first two Type 075 amphibious assault vessels are berthed together and undergoing their final fit-out at a state-owned Shanghai shipyard, China’s official military media reported.
Photographs in the official media and commercial satellite images show that the 250m-long vessels appear similar to flat-top amphibious assault ships in service with other advanced navies, including the US fleet.
The US has a fleet of eight Wasp and two America-class amphibious assault vessels.
However, in a blow to US efforts to blunt the challenge from China, the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard caught fire on July 12 while tied up at its home port in San Diego, California.
The ship was extensively damaged in the fire, which burned for four days.
It was unclear if the vessel would be salvaged, the US Navy said.
Since 2005, China has also built a fleet of six Type 071 amphibious ships, a 2019 report from the US Defense Intelligence Agency said.
These vessels can carry up to four air-cushion landing craft, similar to the hovercraft carried on US amphibious landing ships, as well as four or more helicopters, armored vehicles and troops on long-distance deployments, the report said.
A seventh Type 071 is under construction, Western military analysts have said.
China’s official shipbuilding industry journals have reported that the 29,000-tonne Type 071 has command and control capabilities, a medical unit and accommodation for hundreds of marines.
The 210m-long vessel has a range of 10,000 nautical miles (18,520km) and reached a speed of 25 knots in trials, they said.
To build the force that would embark on these vessels, China began a rapid increase in the size of its marine force in 2017, Pentagon reports have said.
Earlier, marines had been a low priority in the decades when the PLA built a massive ground force to defend China.
A regiment of marines was formed in 1953 and expanded to a division, then disbanded in 1957, before being reformed in 1979, an official timeline of major events in PLA history showed.
The US Defense Intelligence Agency report said that China’s marine force is organized into seven brigades, each with armor, infantry, artillery and missiles, and is the strongest force of this type among the rival claimants to disputed territories in the South China Sea.
China’s marines “can simultaneously seize multiple islands in the Spratlys [Nansha Islands, 南沙群島],” the report said.
They could also rapidly reinforce China’s outposts in the Paracel Islands (Xisha Islands, 西沙群島).
China does not publish detailed accounts of the disposition of its forces.
Amphibious warfare specialists have said that the marines would also be useful for seizing other disputed territory, including the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) in the East China Sea — which are claimed by Taipei, Tokyo and Beijing.
Japan refers to them as the Senkaku Islands, or “Tonoshiro Senkaku,” while China refers to them as the Diaoyu Archipelago (釣魚群島).
Selected army units are being transferred to the marines to boost the force’s capability, reports in the official Chinese military media and Western defense analysts have said.
China’s official military newspaper, the PLA Daily, in April reported that two army units trained in aerial assault had been transferred to a marines brigade dedicated to helicopter landings.
In 2018, the Pentagon said in its annual report to the US Congress on Chinese military power — Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China — that a newly established headquarters under the command of the PLA Navy is responsible for staffing, training and equipping the expanding force, and that a new commander had been appointed to lead the marines.
China’s state-controlled media has identified him as Major General Kong Jun (孔軍), a former army officer who transferred to the marines in early 2017.
Despite this buildup, the Pentagon and other military experts have said that the PLA marines remain far less capable than the 186,000-strong US Marine Corps, with its extensive experience of amphibious and land operations.
In its 2019 report on China’s military power, the Pentagon said that most of the new PLA marine brigades did not yet have the troops and equipment to be fully operational.
China’s marines lacked sufficient armored vehicles, helicopters and training to conduct complex amphibious operations, it said.
Some Western military experts have said that the top priorities for the PLA brass are the army amphibious units and air force airborne troops that would spearhead an attack on Taiwan.
So, the marines “don’t have priority when it comes to things like amphibious tanks and helicopters,” said Easton, who has written a book, The Chinese Invasion Threat, on the PLA’s preparations to conquer Taiwan.
For political reasons, the CCP has long wanted control of Taiwan, which also has huge strategic importance.
Taiwan would give the PLA a key foothold in the so-called first island chain, the string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas.
From bases on Taiwan, Chinese warships, strike aircraft and missiles would dominate the sea lanes vital to Japan and South Korea — and Taiwan would be an ideal jump-off point for operations aimed at seizing more territory in the island chain.
Newsham said that the PLA has assembled a formidable army amphibious force and sufficient ships — military and civilian — to probably land enough troops on Taiwan as part of a full-scale attack that would include air, missile, naval and cyberassaults.
“The PLA already has a lot lined up,” Newsham added.
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