By William Tucker
China’s growing naval capabilities have garnered concern in U.S. defense circles – not to mention that of U.S. allies in East Asia – over the past decade and a half as Beijing has sought to expand its influence and territorial control in the waters bordering Southeast Asia. As if to accentuate the concern, China has been aggressively challenging its neighbors over disputed islands in the East and South China Seas. These maneuvers, in many ways, have eschewed diplomacy and have easily crossed into outright militarism. Only later does China return to dialog for a short period of time after the confrontation. In many ways Beijing has sought to appear intransigent in pursuing these matters, but that is precisely the point. China feels that is has a small window of opportunity to pursue its regional interests before the U.S. can rebalance its military posture more towards East Asia. In the interim, China wishes to make as many regional gains as it can before it may be forced into any possible future concessions in the midst of negotiations with the U.S. or other regional powers.
To pursue these objectives, China must have a capable blue water navy with a strong focus on brown water operations. Naturally, this would be coupled with aerial operations housed and maintained on a seagoing platform. In other words, the Chinese navy must be able to perform on the open ocean far from home and hone its emerging ability to use naval assets to project air and ground forces in contested areas. Of course, these capabilities do not manifest overnight. Although China has been busy constructing new naval vessels it still lacks a true and tested warfighting doctrine with which to apply these capabilities. China may have the vessels, but for now the focus will be on provoking responses from regional competitors to gauge capabilities and their adversaries political appetite for confrontation, coupled with intense training for its naval forces. This may be one such explanation as to why Beijing decided to designate its new aircraft carrier as a training vessel which is operating primarily in China’s littoral environment. As of now, China’s carrier has limited capabilities anyway, and doesn’t have the training institutionalized to construct a carrier strike group just yet.
While a carrier strike group is a prized asset for any nation-state, having the ability to conduct amphibious operations in full on joint operations is a goal for those nations capable of fielding an expeditionary conventional force. What China is truly after is the capability to dominate the sea, land, and air in its areas of interest and eventually use its navy to protect sea lanes which it uses for international commerce. Much has been discussed about the growth in China’s naval and air forces, but the ability to put boots on the ground, so to speak, has constantly taken a back seat in much of the available analysis of Chinese military development. Beijing has recognized this need and has begun building amphibious warfare capabilities into its burgeoning navy. Thus far, China has constructed four Yuzhao Type 071 Amphibious Ships capable of carrying a marine battalion (approximately 500-800 troops), four Yuyi Class air cushioned landing craft (LCAC), and between 15-20 armored amphibious vehicles. Additionally, this class of ship is capable of housing four Z-8 heavy lift helicopters. The Type 071 is similar in hull design to the U.S. San Antonio Class amphibious transport dock, though not as capable or sophisticated. China is also reportedly planning to build another Amphibious assault ship called the Type 081 which would be similar in hull design to the U.S. Wasp or America Class of warships complete with more robust aerial capabilities than the Type 071.
Some observers have stated that China’s interest in developing a capable amphibious warfare capability is directly related to retaking Taiwan. As a former province of China, Taiwan is high on the list of priorities for Beijing. China would like to reintegrate Taiwan, but for now, the focus will likely remain on espionage and intelligence collection. Taiwan is a highly developed country with a robust economy and infrastructure. Any attempt to reintegrate Taiwan by force could destroy much of this, and as such, the developing amphibious capabilities are unlikely to be geared toward a conflict with Taiwan any time soon. Beijing has no interest in destroying Taiwan to save it. China is still a long way from building enough amphibious ships and training a landing force capable of such a conflict in the near term anyways. Thus, the focus of the emerging amphibious capabilities will be focused on asserting China’s claim to the multitude of dispute islands and waters within their maritime environment.