China’s military made use of a large civilian cargo ship to transport troops, weapons and supplies in a recent drill, which one analyst said would be used should the PLA launch an attack on self-ruled Taiwan.
The exercise was highlighted on state television last week. It involved an amphibious brigade from the 73rd Group Army based in Xiamen, Fujian – the eastern province that faces Taiwan across a narrow strait. Transport was provided by a 16,000-tonne civilian ship, CCTV said in the report on August 17, without saying when or where the exercise was held.
“It’s the first time we’ve used a civilian ship with displacement of more than 10,000 tonnes,” Wang Hua, an officer with the 73rd Group Army, told the broadcaster. “In the past we relied on smaller civilian ships of a few thousand tonnes to handle offshore loading of supplies.”
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During the drill, troops from the brigade’s armoured vehicle unit “repelled” an attack as they were loading the cargo ship, according to the report, which showed dozens of military vehicles being transported on the civilian vessel at sea.
Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, said the exercise suggested the People’s Liberation Army was conducting preparedness training for an attack on the island.
“[During an invasion] the PLA would need to take control of all the major cities in Taiwan soon after landing,” Lu said. “So civilian cargo ships could become a cover for them to ship in military supplies.”
He noted that Taiwan’s military was also preparing for that scenario. “It’s why you see defence of the Tamsui River in Taipei has become a regular part of Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang exercises,” he said.
Beijing claims Taiwan as its territory and has not renounced the use of force to bring the island under its control. Tensions have been rising across the Taiwan Strait, and Beijing has stepped up military activity near the democratic island, including sending warplanes into its air defence identification zone and staging war games nearby.
Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing, said any amphibious landing needed support from civilian vessels because of the complexity of the operation.
“This is just regular training for all PLA amphibious units,” he said, adding that other powers like the United States and Russia also used civilian ships for support during exercises.
“China is the world’s No 1 shipbuilding country and some of the civilian ocean-going vessels have 50,000 tonnes of displacement,” Chen said. “They could be used for shipping fuel and other military supplies if necessary.”
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