When a Chinese ferry joined the People’s Liberation Army Navy for an amphibious landing exercise in July 2020, observers noticed something different.
It’s not unusual for Chinese merchant vessels to participate in the PLA’s operations and Bang Chui Dao, a 15,560-ton roll-on roll-off ferry, has been used before to support military transportation exercises. But where such ships might have been limited to accessing port terminals before, the ferry’s stern ramp had been converted to enable it to launch and recover a 26-ton ZTD-05, an amphibious armored vehicle used by the Chinese military, according to a brief published by The Jamestown Foundation earlier this month.
With about 2,740 feet of vehicle capacity, Bang Chui Dao, which was built in 1995 and can also carry 1,200 passengers, is estimated to have space to move an amphibious mechanized infantry battalion.
Experts told USNI News that the ramp upgrade offers a clue about how China, which has a massive maritime militia at its disposal, may be building out its fleet for a possible cross-strait invasion of Taiwan.
“The pictures tell 1,000 words,” said Thomas Shugart, a retired Navy captain and fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security. “And it seems like we know that they, in fairly calm seas, they did develop and test, it appears successfully, a ramp that gave them the capability to turn one of their civilian roll-on, roll-off carriers into a delivery vessel for amphibious assault vehicles.”
Tensions between China and Taiwan have been flaring for years. Beijing has declared that the island of 23 million people will one day be unified with the mainland. Taiwanese leaders, meanwhile, have continued to assert their independence from Beijing, which in turn increased its aggressive and intimidating tactics, including flying more fighters near the island, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
China’s increased military activities in the South China Sea have also antagonized its neighbors in the region and become a main focus of the U.S. and its allies. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is in Southeast Asia this week for visits in Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, where he said he plans to discuss capabilities and countering China’s aggression.
“We don’t believe that any one country should be able to dictate the rules, or worse yet, throw them over the transom,” Austin said during a joint press conference with Army Gen. Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at the Pentagon last week.
The Chinese military is expanding its capabilities — adding to its missile and bomber forces and growing its Navy, including its fleet of aircraft carriers — and it set 2020 as a target to have the capacity to attack Taiwan. But experts say it lacks the amphibious landing vessels required to launch the waves of forces necessary to pull off a successful land invasion.
Shugart, who testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in March on China’s capabilities, noted that China is the world’s largest shipbuilder. That’s left some to wonder why it hasn’t filled its amphibious assault ship gap.
“That’s what this experiment or testing or demonstration, or whatever it is, may provide, some of the clue there about how they may close that gap,” Shugart said.
Lonnie Henley, a retired intelligence officer and China specialist who now works as a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, said what China’s 2020 target consisted of and whether they met that goal isn’t clear. It may also have an entirely “different calculus for how many military craft are necessary,” he said.
“We don’t know whether they reached the 2020 goal that they had set for themselves and decided ‘that is good.’ Or they reached that goal and decided, ‘Ah, we were wrong, that’s not good enough.’ Or, they didn’t reach that goal at all,” said Henley, who testified on what a cross-strait invasion might look like before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in February. “They don’t talk about that.”
China has set technical standards for shipbuilding, including design, so that merchant vessels can be used by the military. But that’s complicated by an incomplete system for mobilizing those vessels, including how to compensate owners as the country’s economy shifts from one that’s command-based to one based on the market, Henley said.
Meanwhile, more clues about China’s plans may also be emerging. In recent days, Shugart spotted two roll-on, roll-off ferries more than 1,000 miles from their normal crossing routes anchored off Guandong Province. He noted sandy beaches along the nearest coastline, the same location as the 2020 ramp tests.
While uncertainty about China’s make up for a cross-strait invasion remains, Henley, who called Bang Chui Dao’s beefed-up ramp a “minor development,” said its long-range plans are clear.
“They are going to build an invasion capability,” he said. “They are building an invasion capability. They’ve been at it for 20 years, they’re going to keep building. Now, the unanswerable question is when they decide that they are fully ready, then what?”
After crafting a force to invade, Henley and Shugart said possessing the capability may be as far as China is willing to go.
“They feel they must be able to conquer Taiwan, but they prefer not to have to conquer Taiwan militarily,” Henley said. “They prefer to resolve this in the long term without a war, because a war over Taiwan would be bad for everything else that China cares about and they don’t want to have to choose between Taiwan and everything else. They want both.”