20 January 2023

CMSI China Maritime Report #25: “More Chinese Ferry Tales: China’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Military Activities, 2021–2022”

Impactful encore publication by J. Michael Dahm, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer. Among his Indo-Pacific assignments, he formerly served as Assistant U.S. Naval Attaché in Beijing—and graciously hosted me and my CMSI colleagues there. Check out the revealing accompanying graphics: 26 tables, 37 figures!

J. Michael DahmMore Chinese Ferry Tales: China’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Military Activities, 2021–2022, China Maritime Report 25 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, January 2023).

About the Author

J. Michael Dahm is a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer with 25 years of service. He has focused on Asia-Pacific security matters since 2006 when he served as Chief of Intelligence Plans for China and later established the Commander’s China Strategic Focus Group at the U.S. Pacific Command. From 2012–2015, he was an Assistant Naval Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China. Before retiring from the Navy in 2017, he served as the Senior Naval Intelligence Officer for China at the Office of Naval Intelligence. The author would like to thank the China Maritime Studies Institute’s Dr. Andrew Erickson for his encouragement to pursue this project and Ryan Martinson for his detailed editorial review and constructive recommendations. This report reflects the analysis and opinions of the author alone. The author is responsible for any errors or omissions contained in this report.

Sources and Methods

This report fuses a variety of publicly and commercially available sources to gain detailed insights into often complex military activity and capabilities. Analysis is supported with AIS data from MarineTraffic—Global Ship Tracking Intelligence.104 Google Earth images are attributed to the commercial satellite provider and published under the Google Earth terms of service.105 The report features commercial satellite imagery from Planet Labs PBC. Medium-resolution satellite imagery from Planet’s PlanetScope constellation (ground sample distance (GSD) ~3.7 meters) and high-resolution satellite imagery from Planet’s SkySat constellation (GSD ~0.5 meters) were purchased by the author through SkyWatch Space Applications Inc. The report also features commercial satellite imagery from Airbus Intelligence. Images from Airbus’ Pleiades constellation (GSD ~0.5 meters) and Pleiades Neo constellation (GSD ~0.3 meters) were also purchased by the author through SkyWatch Space Applications Inc.106 The SkyWatch team’s advice and assistance in accessing archived imagery and tasking satellite collection was greatly appreciated. The author is responsible for all annotations of satellite images contained in this report. Planet and Airbus retain copyrights to the underlying PlanetScope, SkySat, Pleiades, and Pleiades Neo images respectively. Other than Google Earth derived images, satellite images published in this report should not be reproduced without the expressed permission of Planet or Airbus.


This report provides a comprehensive assessment of Chinese civilian shipping support to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), examining civil maritime-military activities from October 2021 through September 2022. As of 2022, the PLA and its reserve civilian merchant fleet are still probably unable to provide significant amphibious landing capabilities or the maritime logistics in austere or challenging environments necessary to support a major cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. However, large volume lift exercises conducted in 2022 suggest that the PLA has made significant progress in the use of civilian vessels for the large-scale lift of PLA troops and equipment into undefended ports, a capability that may be leveraged in a military assault on Taiwan. This report also discusses other civil maritime-military activities not previously observed, including the use of civilian vessels and infrastructure to conceal PLA troop movements, operations from austere ports, use of ocean-going vessels to transport PLA forces along inland waterways, and logistics support for China’s South China Sea outposts.


This report is a follow-on to China Maritime Report No. 16, which assessed PLA use of civilian shipping for logistics over-the-shore (LOTS) and amphibious landings in 2020 and 2021.1 Like its predecessor, this report analyzes commercially available ship tracking data, satellite imagery, media reporting, and other open-source material to assess the capabilities of PLA logistics troops and supporting civilian ships, especially roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ferries. Unlike the earlier study that focused on major amphibious exercises, this report provides a comprehensive examination of all Chinese civil maritime-military events over an entire year.

Examining Chinese civil maritime-military events over time offers several advantages. It provides a greater understanding of the diversity of civil maritime-military events and how they may be prioritized. Foreign observers tend to focus on a Taiwan contingency, but the PLA is preparing to use—indeed, is already using—civilian shipping for other missions that merit attention. Even in the case of a Taiwan contingency, civilian ships may not be tasked only with LOTS. A comprehensive review of annual training sheds light on these other possible missions. Lastly, this approach offers analysis of training patterns over the course of a full year and lays the foundation for future studies of Chinese civil maritime-military training activities over multiple years.

This report examines thirty-eight civil maritime-military events that occurred between October 2021 and September 2022. A detailed analysis of these events reveals the focus of PLA training with civilian RO-RO vessels was moving ground forces from port-to-port. During the period under consideration, the PLA also used civilian vessels to train for beach landings. Those landings featured an updated version of the PLA floating causeway system for over-the-shore logistics discussed in China Maritime Report No. 16. But these landing events, which began in May and culminated in a September amphibious landing exercise, appeared to have modest aims and did not stress exercise participants with realistic combat conditions. Despite some increase in scale and complexity compared to the 2021 capstone landing exercise, the 2022 exercise strongly suggests that the PLA remains limited in its ability to employ civilian RO-RO ferries as part of a major beach assault against Taiwan. However, 2022 events overall do indicate that China’s civil maritime industry has significantly advanced core capabilities for the large-scale lift of PLA troops and equipment into undefended, captured ports, capabilities that may be leveraged in a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan.

Other findings include:

  • An April 2022 event demonstrated the coordinated use of ten smaller RO-RO ferries probably to deploy a large PLA formation of vehicles. (See pages 7–8)
  • In November 2021 and September 2022, large, ocean-going RO-RO ferries moved what were probably PLA units up the Yangtze River to the inland port of Nanjing. (See pages 8–10)
  • An August 2022 event revealed how the PLA would likely use port infrastructure, including large warehouses, to camouflage and conceal military movements from civilian ports via civilian shipping. (See pages 10–12)
  • In several events, civilian RO-RO ships operated from relatively austere ports without the use of tugboats or substantial port infrastructure to load and unload military equipment. (See pages 12–13)
    • The PLA demonstrated significant increases in the volume of civil maritime-generated lift compared to observations of activity in 2020–2021.
    • From July-August 2022, twelve RO-RO ferries and cargo ships conducted 82 transits between eleven Chinese ports in a five-week-long large volume lift exercise. The exercise may have transported more than 8,500 military vehicles and 58,000 troops, probably equivalent to a group army (six PLA Army (PLAA) combined arms brigades plus six supporting brigades). (See pages 14–27)
  • The July–August 2022 event and a September event appeared to focus on moving nonamphibious, heavy combined arms units, elements that would likely constitute follow-on, second echelon forces in a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. (See pages 28–31)
  • The PLA exercised an improved floating causeway system, used by RO-RO ships to deploy forces directly into a beach landing area. The new modular system extends 2,130 feet (650 meters) from the shore, 40 percent farther than the causeway observed in 2021 training. (See pages 32–34)
  • An amphibious landing capstone exercise in September 2022 was marginally more complex than a similar landing exercise observed in September 2021. (See pages 36–44)
    • Compared to the eight ships involved in the 2021 exercise, ten ships participated in the 2022 landing exercise and, like the 2021 exercise, were integrated with PLA Navy (PLAN) amphibious ships in offshore landing evolutions.
    • Four RO-RO ferries conducted offshore launches of amphibious armored vehicles or assault boats, double the number of RO-RO ferries that deployed forces at sea in 2021.
  • Two RO-RO ferries and two general cargo ships provided military logistics support to PLA island outposts in the South China Sea. (See pages 45–47)

This report comprises five sections and two appendices. Section one provides a brief overview of events observed during the 2021–2022 time period. Sections two through five present detailed analysis of the four main categories of events observed: inter- / intra-theater mobility, large volume lift exercises, amphibious landings and LOTS, and South China Sea logistics support. The report concludes with Appendix A, offering a listing and details of Chinese merchant ships observed participating in civil-maritime activity, and Appendix B, describing Chinese ports assessed to have supported civil-military activity. … … …


China Maritime Reports are short, focused analyses of topics related to China’s rise as a maritime power. Written by members of the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) and other experts, they cover topics as diverse as China’s maritime militia, overseas port development, and amphibious warfare.

Ryan D. Martinson, Incubators of Sea Power: Vessel Training Centers and the Modernization of the PLAN Surface Fleet, China Maritime Report 24 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, November 2022).

About the Author

Ryan D. Martinson is a researcher in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College. He holds a master’s degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a bachelor’s of science from Union College. Martinson has also studied at Fudan University, the Beijing Language and Culture University, and the Hopkins-Nanjing Center. His research primarily focusses on the intersection between marine policy and military strategy. Martinson’s work has appeared in periodicals such as the Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, the RUSI Journal, Asian Security, the Journal of Strategic Studies, the Naval War College Review, Marine Policy, Orbis, and Survival.

The author would like to thank Dan Caldwell, CDR Tim Drosinos, and Conor Kennedy for helping to improve this report. Any errors or omissions are his alone.


The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is building modern surface combatants faster than any other navy in the world. Before these new ships can be deployed, however, their crews must learn how to effectively operate them across the range of missions for which they were designed. In the PLAN, this “basic training” largely occurs at specialized organizations called Vessel Training Centers (VTCs). Since their creation in 1980, VTCs have played a key role in generating combat power for the fleet. But as China’s naval ambitions have grown, the VTCs have been forced to adapt. Since the early 2000s, and especially since 2012, they have faced tremendous pressure to keep pace with the rapid expansion and modernization of the PLAN surface fleet and its growing mission set, improve the standards and quality of vessel training, and uphold the integrity of training evaluations. This report argues that the PLAN’s VTCs have generally risen to the challenge, ensuring that new and recently-repaired ships can quickly reach operational units in a fairly high state of readiness.


China’s first Type 055 cruiser, the Nanchang, was commissioned on January 21, 2020 in Qingdao, Shandong, home to the Northern Theater Command Navy.1 Commentators naturally fixated on the physical characteristics of the new ship: her length and displacement, the numbers and dimensions of her missile cells, her dual-band radar, and her “stealthy” lines.2 By these (and other) metrics, the Nanchang was among the most advanced warships in the world.3 But a ship, no matter how advanced, can only realize its full combat potential if it is operated by a competent crew.4 Development of that competence involves months—possibly years—of intensive training under the guidance of dedicated and knowledgeable instructors.

For the Nanchang, and hundreds of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships preceding her, that training began immediately upon commissioning, at a specialized unit called a Vessel Training Center (VTC). These organizations serve the vital function of transforming new or recently-repaired ships into combat-ready assets. Instructors at VTCs help provide the “basic training” (基础训练) for ship crews that allows them to be certified for deployment on that platform. Training done at VTCs serves as the foundation for follow on training with other arms of the navy and the joint force. As such, PLAN experts often describe VTCs as “incubators” (孵化器) of surface fleet combat power.5 … … …


Like other modern navies, the PLAN relies on specialized organizations to provide basic training for newly-commissioned or recently-repaired surface vessels. These organizations, called VTCs, are located in each of the three Theater Command navies. Since their creation in the 1980s, they have played a vital role in transforming PLAN ships—everything from mine sweepers to amphibious assault ships, but excluding aircraft carriers—into technically- and tactically-competent fighting units prepared for integration with the rest of the operational navy.

In recent years, VTCs have faced tremendous pressure to adapt to the needs of a rapidly expanding and modernizing fleet. Beginning in the early 2000s with a wave of new fast attack craft and frigates, followed later by a surge of new corvettes, frigates, destroyers, cruisers, LPDs, LHDs, and auxiliaries, the PLAN has built dozens of surface vessels at a rate unmatched by any other contemporary navy, with the most recent classes ranking among the most modern in the world. How have the VTCs fared in their efforts to translate this latent combat power into real operational capabilities across the full range of wartime and peacetime missions for which these ships were designed?

As this report demonstrates, the VTCs have clearly succeeded in their most basic function: providing enough training to enough crews so that new ships can quickly reach the fleet with an acceptable degree of readiness. This has been extremely challenging for the VTCs, previously accustomed to training small batches of ships, with training beginning at the same time every year. To augment training capacity, they have borrowed training expertise and resources from operational units, altered internal processes to allow new ships to begin training throughout the year (instead of a single annual start date), developed mass training methods, embraced the use of simulators, expanded training staff and training facilities, and required that VTC personnel work as long and as hard as necessary to get the job done. As a result, VTCs have proven themselves capable of supporting the PLAN’s colossal shipbuilding program, enabling most new ships to complete basic training within the standard 6-12 months.

At the same time that the VTCs have expanded training capacity, they have also strived to improve the quality of the training they provide. They have done this through a system of “training supervision” comprising a staff of officers charged with monitoring training quality and providing feedback to crew members (and trainers) and soliciting feedback from sailors receiving instruction. Due to the rapid pace of modernization, VTC instructors may lack first-hand experience with the weapons, equipment, and systems installed on the newest ship classes. To bridge this knowledge gap, VTCs provide professional development opportunities for training staff and require them to keep abreast of new technologies by consulting with shipbuilders and equipment vendors. To ensure a committed and motivated training staff, the VTCs provide additional compensation tied to job performance.

Even if basic training is led by a highly dedicated and knowledgeable training staff working at well-equipped training facilities, training outcomes may still be less than optimal. Much depends on the standards of competence ship crews are expected to achieve. These standards are defined in training outlines (OMTEs) specific to each class of ship. Because the PLAN does not release these documents, it is difficult to gauge how training standards compare with those of other modern navies. This may only be possible through careful observation of deployed PLAN vessels that have recently completed basic training.

What is clear is that institutional and cultural problems have undermined the PLAN’s efforts to ensure that ship crews actually meet all the training standards outlined in the OMTEs. This is done through formal evaluations over the course of basic training and a final, multi-day comprehensive training evaluation held after basic training is complete. VTCs have strong incentives to give passing marks to all ships/crews that they train, because doing so reflects well on them. However, in recent years the PLAN—following guidance from above—has implemented a system that involves “third party” entities in the evaluation process. These teams of experts from the Theater Command Navy Staff Department are more insulated from institutional pressures to achieve high success rates. By some accounts, this new system is yielding more objective assessments. Perhaps more problematic, the PLAN continues to be plagued by a culture of corruption, cheating, and cronyism. In some cases, individual training evaluators accept bribes in exchange for positive evaluations or a preview of testing content. In other case, they may show favoritism to friends and former colleagues. Recent reports indicate that these problems with PLAN organizational culture continue to harm the integrity of training evaluations, despite efforts to mitigate them.

The data presented in this report does not allow for a detailed comparison between PLAN basic training and U.S. Navy Basic Phase training. Still, some insights are possible. First, training timelines are very similar. PLAN basic training generally lasts 6-12 months, sometimes longer and sometimes shorter, largely depending the class of ship and the initial training levels of the crew. U.S. Navy Basic Phase training is intended to last precisely 24 weeks (5.5 months).

Second, despite similar timelines, PLAN basic training appears to cover more content than U.S. Navy Basic Phase training. After completing basic training and passing all evaluations, PLAN vessels are expected to be ready for almost immediate deployment, as single ships or as members of “ship formations” (i.e., surface action groups). Therefore, basic training includes subjects such as joint ASW, joint air defense, and joint search and rescue, which the U.S. Navy leaves for later phases in the training process. Moreover, PLAN basic training concludes with a multi-day comprehensive training evaluation that certifies that a ship and its CO are ready for action. The U.S. Navy’s Basic Phase does not.

Lastly, PLAN basic training places much heavier emphasis on training ship crews under “realistic” combat conditions. The aim is to force sailors to demonstrate competence in unpredictable circumstances, under stress, and against “blue” aggressor forces enlisted for the purpose. Except for a 2-3 day capstone Final Battle Problem, reserved until the end of Basic Phase training, the U.S. Navy does not prioritize training under realistic conditions until months later, during follow-on training phases.


Conor M. Kennedy and Daniel Caldwell, The Type 075 LHD: Development, Missions, and Capabilities, China Maritime Report 23 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, October 2022).

About the Authors

Conor M. Kennedy is a research associate at the China Maritime Studies Institute in the U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island. He received his MA from Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University for Chinese and American Studies. His work focused on PLA amphibious warfare, civil-military fusion, and Chinese maritime affairs.

Daniel Caldwell CDR, USN (ret) is a retired Surface Warfare Officer with 28 years of service. His shore tours have included planning billets with CJTF-HOA, COMPACFLT, USINDOPACOM, and the Joint Staff J5. He has served as a Professor of Joint Military Operations and is the former Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College.

This report reflects the authors’ personal views only. The authors would like to thank LtCol Marshalee Clark, USMC, Roderick Lee, CDR Timothy Drosinos, USN, and Col James “Jay” Schnelle, USMC, for their helpful insights during the course of producing this report. Any errors or omissions are the authors’ alone.


When the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) commissioned its first Type 075 class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) in April 2021, it represented an important advance in power projection capability for China’s maritime forces. For the first time, the PLAN had an amphibious warship capable of hosting significant rotary wing forces while acting as the flagship for an amphibious task force. Now with three Type 075 class ships either in or soon to be in service, the PLAN has expanded its amphibious capability even further. The Type 075’s dedicated aviation support capability, ability to conduct wet well operations, and expanded command and control and medical facilities reflect capabilities that previously did not exist within the PLAN amphibious fleet. With the Type 075 LHD, the PLAN clearly intends to bolster its ability to project power from the sea in order to protect China’s overseas interests, but will require time for amphibious task forces to become fully proficient.


With the 2007 commissioning of the Type 071 Landing Platform Dock (LPD), the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) sought to attain an amphibious platform capable of power projection operations far from Chinese shores. The construction of the Type 075 Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD)—the first of which was commissioned in April 2021—is further evidence of the PLAN’s desire to incorporate a truly first-rate amphibious capability into its force structure.

Although a number of nations developed, constructed, and deployed modern amphibious forces throughout the 20th Century, it was the United States Navy (USN) along with the United States Marine Corps (USMC) during the Second World War that set the standard of amphibious doctrine, capacity, and capability. Since the mid-2000s, the PLAN has sought to emulate the success of the USN/USMC team and has made remarkable strides in this direction with the construction of major amphibious platforms, the most impressive of which is the Type 075 LHD.

In the post-World War II era, the USMC explicitly made the connection between ground and air arms with the development of the Marine Air Ground Task Force. The doctrine that was developed relied on the integration of helicopters for the insertion of troops as well as fixed-wing attack aircraft to provide close air support to landing forces. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the USMC began developing requirements for a ship that would be capable of carrying up to two thousand Marines (including aviation personnel) and supporting an air component of up to twenty helicopters. This concept culminated in the early 1990s with the development of the Wasp-class LHD.

As the centerpiece of the Amphibious Ready Group concept, LHDs are extremely capable platforms that incorporate both a well deck for the employment of landing craft, including Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCACs), and a flight deck to support both fixed wing and rotary wing operations. For the PLAN, having observed the USN/USMC amphibious operations for decades, the need to develop its own LHD-type vessel as the centerpiece of its amphibious forces was clear. However, although its design was largely inspired by western counterparts, the Type 075 has a number of characteristics particular to the requirements of the PLAN.

This report discusses the development of the Type 075 class LHD, the capabilities it is expected to provide, and the way in which the PLAN may incorporate such a platform into the current force structure and future operations. In particular, it examines the Type 075’s role as the flagship of PLAN future amphibious task forces operating in the far seas. … … …


The advent of the Type 075 is an important first step toward a future expeditionary force and represents “a new-type of amphibious combat force for the navy.” Its arrival signifies a profound shift in the missions, functional roles, and the structure and scale of the PLAN’s landing ship flotillas.197 The ship itself provides the PLAN with the hardware to deploy multi-mission amphibious combat forces into distant waters, enabling more credible responses against threats to national interests.

As a new class of ship, the Type 075 program has advanced quickly, as demonstrated by the rapid assembly, launch, and commissioning of the initial batch of three ships. According to the Hainan’s Political Commissar in August 2022, the ship has completed training in basic subjects (基础课目训练), multi-service arm joint training (多兵种联合训练), and mission-oriented exercises (使命课题演练) in the year since its commissioning. Accompanied by footage of flight deck operations and well-deck operations with PLANMC forces on the Hainan, he claims the ship has reached initial operational capability in carrying out amphibious combat duties.198 While initial operational capability can be measured differently in other navies, the ship’s progress is overall an impressive feat of efficiency in naval systems development. The ship has included some of the latest technologies in PLAN surface ships, but does not introduce any groundbreaking capabilities vis-à-vis other navies. It is most significant as a completely new capability that will challenge the PLAN/PLANMC like never before to operate effectively together. While not covered in this report, a new generation of amphibious assault ship—the Type 076—is also reportedly under development by the 708 Institute.199 Additional amphibious assault ship classes will similarly have an important impact on the overall design and use of amphibious forces.

Many challenges still need to be overcome to make this amphibious force effective in the types of missions envisioned. The PLAN has yet to publicize more complex exercises involving other ships of the fleet or what the full air detachment will look like. More importantly, the PLAN has to date not yet deployed larger scale amphibious forces into the far seas. The USN shed blood and spent decades learning and improving the implementation of expeditionary warfare, making it the best possible reference for PLAN development. Study of the USN has likely benefited the development of the Type 075 program. However, the difficulty of expeditionary operations may negate most of the late-mover advantage the PLAN could muster. Expeditionary operations feature a steep learning curve that starts with planning and execution at home ports and bases. To make future amphibious task forces effective and join the club of powers capable of expeditionary warfare, the PLAN will need to learn the hard way by actually deploying forces and planning and executing operations.

This report seeks a deeper understanding of the Type 075 LHD. It has examined the ship’s development, its various capabilities, and how it fits within the PLAN’s amphibious fleet forces. In this process, a number of PRC/PLA writings were examined, ranging from earlier defense academic studies and official reporting in newspapers to a very active discussion by numerous unofficial experts conducting their own assessments of the final delivered ship. PRC discussions regarding the ship and amphibious task forces are intensely ambitious. Many anticipate deployment anywhere in the world. This report finds that future amphibious task forces centered on the Type 075 will learn to crawl before they can run, a process that will take many years. The current cohort of three ships could sustain a single amphibious task force deployed abroad, and will largely be tasked with lower-intensity, small-scale operations for military diplomacy or to protect national interests.


Kevin McCauley, Logistics Support for a Cross-Strait Invasion: The View from Beijing, China Maritime Report 22 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, July 2022).

About the Author

Kevin McCauley has served as senior intelligence officer for the Soviet Union, Russia, China, and Taiwan during 31 years in the federal government, as well as an Adjunct at the RAND Corporation. He served on numerous advisory boards and working groups supporting the Intelligence Community, National Intelligence Council, and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. McCauley has traveled extensively throughout the Asia-Pacific region for the government. His publications include “PLA System of Systems Operations: Enabling Joint Operations,” “Cultivating Joint Talent” in the Army War College-National Bureau of Asian Research volume The People in the People’s Liberation Army 2.0, “People’s Liberation Army: Army Campaign Doctrine in  Transition” for the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, and “Russian Influence Campaigns against the West: From the Cold War to Putin.” McCauley has provided testimony to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission on the Joint Logistic Support Force and Logistics Support to Expeditionary Operations. McCauley currently writes on PLA and Taiwan military affairs. He also contributes to the Foreign Military Studies Office and U.S. Army TRADOC’s OE Watch journal.


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) believes that logistics support is one of the key determinants of a successful large-scale invasion of Taiwan. Logistics support includes transport, materiel and oil supply, medical care, search and rescue, logistics infrastructure protection, and maintenance of war materiel reserves. Despite the recognized importance of logistics support, it is likely the PLA does not currently possess the requisite logistics capabilities to successfully support a large-scale amphibious landing on Taiwan and a possible protracted conflict involving the United States and allies. Key deficits include a lack of amphibious ships (both military and civilian), transport aircraft, and war reserves. The PLA also continues to face difficulties with landing the requisite logistics supplies during the critical beach assault phase, constructing maritime transfer platforms or temporary wharves to sustain resupply if intact ports are not rapidly captured, establishing a landing base for logistics operations, maintaining the flow of logistics during on-island combat, and establishing strategic war reserves to support the large-scale operation and possibly prolonged conflict. These problem areas might be resolved with several years of sustained effort and complex training.


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) believes that logistics support is one of the key elements determining the success of a large-scale joint landing operation. The initial support for the landing assault force and the over-the-shore logistics support are the most difficult and critical logistics delivery missions. The PLA actively conducts research into logistics support for amphibious warfare and has identified many problems requiring resolution before being able to successfully support a large-scale landing operation. The PLA does not currently possess the requisite logistics capabilities including equipment, specialized logistics forces, amphibious ships, transport aircraft, and war reserves to successfully support a large-scale amphibious landing on Taiwan. Extensive logistics exercises and training on multiple mission areas necessary to ensure the successful execution of the complex and difficult logistics support plan do not appear to have taken place.

PLA logisticians consider transport, materiel and oil supply, medical, search and rescue, logistics infrastructure protection, and maintenance of war materiel reserves as the main functions of logistics support in a large-scale campaign including blockade, joint firepower strikes, and island landing operations. Such a conflict could escalate with foreign intervention and chain reaction conflicts initiated by countries taking advantage of Beijing’s initiation of operations against Taiwan. Escalation beyond the island landing campaign would further stress strained logistics capabilities.

The PLA is working to construct a precision, just-in-time logistics capability and incorporate intelligent technologies to improve planning and decision making, and to enable just-in-time support to mobile operational units. The logistics integrated command platform will provide a common operating picture and support a fast and efficient logistics system when fully deployed. Logistics forces rely heavily on the Beidou satellite navigation positioning system for communications and coordinating mobile logistics support to dispersed operational units. The Joint Logistic Support Force is developing multiple networks, databases, and a data cloud platform to support logistics planning and supply to units in combat.

The PLA is expanding its logistics capabilities, including air and maritime transport capabilities. Civil-military integration allows the PLA to leverage civilian assets to support delivery of forces and materiel. The National Defense Mobilization Law of 2010 supports mobilization of national resources and promotes civil-military integration. Logistics mobilization of civilian transportation assets is enabled by the 2017 National Defense Transportation Law, intended to strengthen the integration of military requirements into civilian transportation resources. However, numerous PLA sources detail problems with a lack of suitable civilian ships and aircraft, equipment not meeting military standards, as well as poor training.1

This report examines PLA logistics support for a large-scale invasion of Taiwan. It draws heavily from a 2017 volume entitled Operational Logistics Support, published by the PLA’s All Army Logistics Academic Research Center.2 The primary focus of this book is on logistics support to a large-scale amphibious operation against Taiwan. It is part of a series of logistics  publications intended to support Central Military Commission decision making. This “internal” (内部) publication provides highly detailed information on PLA logistics doctrine and capabilities. It also discusses PLA weaknesses and offers proposals for remedying them. … … …


In sum, the PLA assesses its ability to support a large-scale offensive operation is improving, but weaknesses persist in every mission area. Significant deficiencies exist in transportation and war reserves. Certain circumstances would create additional requirements and stress for logistics. For example, intervention by the U.S. could change the nature of the conflict from a war of quick decision to a protracted war and expand the area of operations. A chain reaction conflict in the South China Sea, Indian border, or the Korean peninsula would require logistics support in additional areas. A blockade, international sanctions, or an embargo would force national mobilization. War materiel reserves and especially oil would need to be stockpiled in advance, along with other strategic materiel and resources. The PLA’s assessment of the characteristics of future war includes dispersed mobile forces and high consumption and destruction rates requiring highly mobile and responsive support units providing just-in-time precision logistics employing a highly integrated command information system.

Logistics command, coordination, and organization of forces is complex. The PLA believes that the repeated reorganization of the logistics forces has caused internal frictions, complex coordination issues, low proficiency, and difficult organizational and command issues affecting response times and the efficiency of wartime logistics support. The dual logistics system with the Joint Logistics Support Force combined with the service logistics system creates command and coordination issues when supporting a large-scale conflict. Adding to the complexity is the need to coordinate with government agencies and civilian enterprises for mobilization, requisitioning, repairs and construction, and transportation. Wartime logistics functional areas establish separate command networks from the strategic to the campaign level that could lead to coordination problems during a dynamic, large-scale operation.96

The lack of a full system-of-systems operational capability linking all the services and branches into an integrated entity creates connection problems between operational command and the logistics system. The PLA assesses that the informationization level remains relatively low in the areas of automation, information systems, and intelligent technologies. The command information system of the logistics forces does not meet requirements for major combat operations. Logistics command information system problems can disrupt logistics plans and missions, adversely affecting operations. These disruptions can hamper communications between command levels, front and rear support elements, and logistics and operational units. To address these issues, the PLA is developing a precision logistics capability based on the logistics integrated command platform to provide just in time support to operational units, but it is unclear how far these efforts have progressed.97 PLA experts believe that each logistics mission area has weaknesses. They argue that the greatest weakness involves the delivery of forces and materiel across the Taiwan Strait to defended beaches without the option of unloading at a port. The landing stage would see the highest destruction rates and the heaviest consumption of ammunition and petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL). The PLA plans to establish floating transfer platforms and temporary wharves to enable civilian ships to support the logistics force. Enemy strikes, weather, tides, and beach conditions add to the difficulty of this operation.

The PLA regards mobilization of civilian shipping and aircraft as a problem, despite the guidance of the National Defense Mobilization Law and National Defense Transportation Law. Civilian maritime, air, and ground transportation do not adequately meet military requirements. Civilian crews are not trained for combat operations, and there is limited training with the PLA under large-scale combat conditions.

The lack of war materiel reserves presents another significant impediment to supporting a large-scale offensive operation. War reserves have been established to support disaster relief and internal stability operations. They are not stocked to support modern forces, weapons, and equipment in a large operation. Much of the materiel is old and stocked with parts for demobilized equipment. The PLA’s modernization requires replacement of older reserve equipment and spare parts to support the modern equipment now deployed in the force. The current depot system is not appropriate to support a Taiwan invasion, especially if the conflict were to become protracted. Stockpiling oil and other strategic resources would be necessary in the event of escalation and protracted war.

Search and rescue, medical support, and evacuation of wounded are important missions that can affect morale. Rescuing casualties at sea will be difficult in a large area of operations with the possibility of poor weather. The PLA assesses maritime search and rescue assets as too few to support a large combat operation. Some areas of medical support are assessed as adequate, but field medical support needs improvement. The PLA is stressing field medical aid in training, but not for a large-scale amphibious operation.98

Infrastructure support is critical for deployment of forces and materiel to embarkation areas. The PLA believes that enemy strikes will damage or destroy key nodes, requiring repairs. The PLA currently lacks the necessary units for transportation protection and emergency repair for the rail, road, air, and waterway transportation systems spread over four Theater Commands. The PLA has inadequate transportation repair forces, with the wartime emergency repair mission depending on local transportation engineering enterprises that are ill-prepared for large-scale  emergency repair operations. PLA experts believe that these problems can be solved by establishing and training local emergency repair teams and reforming the enterprise militia management system. As of 2017, the military had not formed a reliable emergency response plan.99

The PLA assesses that even after years of construction in the main strategic direction (i.e., the area facing Taiwan), infrastructure capabilities still faces problems supporting major combat operations. The PLA believes that airfields and ports have poor layouts and throughput capacity, with inadequate support facilities for new weapons and equipment. In 2017, PLA experts concluded that only 55 percent of the airfields had special railway lines for replenishment of oil, ammunition, and other materiel. The PLA believes many navy ports do not have the capability to support multiple ship types and do not meet the needs of high-intensity combat support. Only Fuzhou, Quanzhou, Xiamen, and some other ports in the warzone have the required heavy lifting equipment. Protection and camouflage of air and naval facilities is considered poor, with more than 80 percent of the airfield and port facilities exposed above ground. Early warning and special aircraft and missile units are not considered well-protected. Transportation lines in the area of operations are vulnerable, containing many viaducts and tunnels that are easily damaged and difficult to repair.100

At this time, PLA logistics capabilities likely cannot support a large-scale invasion of Taiwan. The PLA would have to initiate a significant effort to improve the multiple areas limiting logistics support. Depending on the pace and scale of efforts to improve logistics capabilities, the project would likely take at least several years once started. Such a crash effort could provide early indications and warning of an intention to invade Taiwan. Alternatively, if the PLA maintains a slow methodical approach to logistics modernization it could take at least a decade to achieve a capability to logistically support a large-scale amphibious landing on Taiwan.


Lonnie D. Henley, Civilian Shipping and Maritime Militia: The Logistics Backbone of a Taiwan Invasion, China Maritime Report 21 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, May 2022).

About the Author

Lonnie Henley retired from federal service in 2019 after more than 40 years as an intelligence officer and East Asia expert. He served 22 years as a U.S. Army China foreign area officer and military intelligence officer in Korea, at Defense Intelligence Agency, on Army Staff, and in the History Department at West Point. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in 2000 and joined the senior civil service, first as Defense Intelligence Officer for East Asia and later as Senior Intelligence Expert for Strategic Warning at DIA. He worked two years as a senior analyst with CENTRA Technology, Inc. before returning to government service as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for East Asia. He rejoined DIA in 2008, serving for six years as the agency’s senior China analyst, then National Intelligence Collection Officer for East Asia, and culminating with a second term as DIO for East Asia. Mr. Henley holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and Chinese from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and master’s degrees in Chinese language from Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes Scholar; in Chinese history from Columbia University; and in strategic intelligence from the Defense Intelligence College (now National Intelligence University). His wife Sara Hanks is a corporate attorney and CEO specializing in early-stage capital formation. They live in Alexandria, Virginia.

This article was cleared for open publication by the Department of Defense (DoD) Office of Prepublication and Security Review, DOPSR Case 21-S-1603. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of defense or the U.S. Government. The appearance of external hyperlinks does not constitute endorsement by the DoD of the linked websites or the information, products, or services contained therein. The DoD does not exercise any editorial, security, or other control over the information you may find at these locations.


Most analysts looking at the Chinese military threat to Taiwan conclude that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is incapable of invading the island because it lacks the landing ships to transport adequate quantities of troops and equipment across the Taiwan Strait. This report challenges that conventional wisdom, arguing that the PLA intends to meet these requirements by requisitioning civilian vessels operated by members of China’s maritime militia (海上民兵). Since the early 2000s, the Chinese government and military have taken steps to strengthen the national defense mobilization system to ensure the military has ample quantities of trained militia forces to support a cross-strait invasion. Despite ongoing challenges—including poor data management, inconsistent training quality, and gaps in the regulatory system—and uncertainties associated with foreign-flagged Chinese ships, this concept of operations could prove good enough to enable a large-scale amphibious assault.


Discussion of a potential Chinese military invasion of Taiwan almost always hinges on whether the PLA has enough lift capacity to deliver the would-be invasion forces across the Taiwan Strait and, to a lesser extent, whether it could sustain them once they are ashore on Taiwan. The argument centers on People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) amphibious landing ships and other over-the-shore amphibious assault assets, with most observers concluding that the PLAN has not built enough of these ships and therefore that the PLA cannot (yet?) carry out a full-scale invasion.

This report argues that the PLA plans to rely heavily on mobilized maritime militia forces operating requisitioned civilian shipping as the logistical backbone of a cross-strait landing operation, including both the delivery of PLA forces onto Taiwan and logistical sustainment for the PLAN fleet at sea and ground forces ashore. Moreover, the PLA does not regard civilian shipping as a stopgap measure until more PLAN amphibious shipping can be built, but as a central feature of its preferred approach.

The report will examine China’s extensive system for preparing and generating this support force, the roles it will undertake in an invasion operation, and the challenges that must be overcome if the plan is to succeed.

The Scope of the Problem

Most authors looking at the Chinese military threat to Taiwan conclude that the PLA cannot land enough forces on Taiwan to make an invasion viable, that it wil not reach that capability until it builds many more amphibious landing ships, and that doing so will take at least several years even if they accelerate their efforts.2 There has been little detailed analysis to underpin that judgment, at least not in open sources, but most observers assess that the PLA would need to land 300,000 or more troops on Taiwan in total and that the PLAN amphibious fleet can only land around one division, roughly 20,000 troops, in a single lift.3 Since these constraints seem obvious, the logical conclusion is that the PLA must judge itself not yet capable of invading Taiwan.4

The PLA’s prospects appear even worse when one considers the rest of the logistical and operational requirements for a major landing operation, beyond the formidable challenge of getting enough troops ashore quickly in the face of determined resistance. The PLAN auxiliary fleet is inadequate to sustain large-scale combat operations, even if those operations were close to China’s shores as a Taiwan conflict would be. The PLAN has enlisted hundreds of civilian vessels to perform tasks ranging from over-the-shore logistics to at-sea replenishment, emergency repair and towing, medical support, casualty evacuation, and combat search and rescue, suggesting that its own inventory of support ships falls far short of what it deems necessary for a landing campaign.5 Skeptics will argue that this is more proof that the PLA itself does not take the invasion option seriously. The contrary view presented here is that the PLA does take these requirements seriously, but that it intends to rely on maritime militia support for large-scale combat operations, and specifically for a Taiwan invasion campaign.

The maritime militia (海上民兵) has attracted considerable attention in the past decade, led by the efforts of Andrew Erickson and Conor Kennedy at the U.S. Naval War College, focused mainly onits role in supporting China’s claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea.6  Kevin McCauley and Conor Kennedy have also looked at the role of civilian ships in military  power projection outside East Asia.7

What has received much less Western attention is the maritime militia’s role in large-scale combat operations, despite Chinese authors having written extensively on it since the PLA began serious consideration of a Taiwan invasion in the early 2000s. The Nanjing Military Region Mobilization Department director Guo Suqing observed in 2004 that a cross-strait island landing campaign would require large amounts of civilian shipping.8 He noted that there were many suitable ships available, some of which had already been retrofitted for wartime use, but warned that “the traditional form of last-minute non-rigorous civilian ship mobilization can no longer meet the needs of large-scale cross-sea landing operations.” Wang Hewen of the former General Logistics Department’s Institute of Military Transportation noted that efforts to strengthen the  retrofitting of civilian vessels for military use had accelerated in 2003,9 and a 2004 article from the Shanghai Transportation War Preparedness Office outlined the retrofitting work underway there.10 In 2004, Zhou Xiaoping of the Naval Command College called for overhaul of the mobilization system, arguing that “if the traditional administrative order-style mobilization and requisition methods were still followed, it would be difficult to ensure the implementation of civilian ship preparation and mobilization.”11 The government and PLA acted on these concerns, and over the past twenty years the maritime militia has evolved into a major force multiplier for the PLAN in large-scale combat operations.

Operational Roles for the Maritime Militia in a Taiwan Invasion

Kennedy and Erickson have written at length on the militia’s peacetime mission to assert China’s maritime claims, centered on fishing boats that may or may not do any actual fishing. The militia forces discussed here are very different, encompassing large-capacity commercial vessels including container ships, general cargo ships, bulk carriers, tankers, roll-on-roll-off (RO-RO) ferries, barges, semisubmersibles, ocean-going tugboats, passenger ships, “engineering ships,” and others, as well as smaller vessels.13 Authors from the Army Military Transportation University noted in 2015 that the force consisted of over 5,000 ships organized into 89 militia transportation units, 53 waterway engineering units, and 143 units with other specializations.14

Unlike the U.S. Merchant Marine model, where government officers and crews take control of leased ships, Chinese maritime militia units are composed mostly of the regular crews of the mobilized ships, what the Central Military Commission (CMC) Militia and Reserve Bureau director called the “model of selecting militiamen according to their ship” (依船定兵模式).15 The close correlation between requisitioned ships and militia units is essential for integration into military operations. There need to be clear command relationships with the supported PLA units,  and the crews need to be trained on their operational tasks, not to mention the increasingly important issue of legal rights and obligations in wartime. Local or provincial mobilization officials negotiate the requisitioning terms with the ship owners, either large shipping companies or individual owners, while the crews are inducted into militia units by a process that is not explained very clearly in the available writings. Several articles note that some militiamen are not enthusiastic about their role.16

PLA sources cite a wide range of wartime functions for the maritime militia. In a Taiwan invasion scenario, they include the following:

  • Delivery of forces. The most obvious operational role for militia units is to carry forces to the battlefield, referred to as “military unit transportation and delivery” (部队运输投送). PLA sources list this as a primary role for civilian shipping, to include participating in the assault landing phase of the operation.17 There are several delivery modes contemplated, the most straightforward being through existing ports. A 2019 article on amphibious heavy combined arms brigades in cross-strait island landing operations noted that as part of the first echelon ashore, one of their most important tasks was to create the conditions for second echelon units to land through operations such as the seizure of ports and piers.18 Articles published in 2014 and 2019 on amphibious landing bases made the same point and included rapid repair of piers among the main tasks to help the second echelon get ashore.19 Other landing modes include lightering from cargo ships to shallow-draft vessels; semisubmersible vessels delivering amphibious vehicles or air-cushion landing craft;20 and RO-RO ships delivering amphibious forces to their launching point or directly to shore.21
  • At-sea support. The PLAN has only a few replenishment ships, not enough to sustain the huge number of vessels that would be involved in a cross-strait invasion.22 Given the relatively short distances for a Taiwan landing, most PLAN ships would likely rely on shore-based support, but the service envisions using militia ships for at-sea replenishment as well, including fuel tankers and cargo ships fitted with equipment for alongside replenishment and helipads for vertical resupply.23 Militia ships would also provide emergency services including towing, rapid repair, firefighting, search and rescue, technical support, and even personnel augmentation to replace casualties aboard navy ships.24
  • Over-the-shore logistical support. A discussion of logistical support in island landing operations noted the importance of fuel tankers laying pipelines to support forces ashore.25 The author did not specify maritime militia in this role, but given the prominence of tankers in other discussions of militia support, it seems likely they would take part in this activity as well. Requisitioned cargo ships will also play a major role in logistical support through captured ports or via lighters and barges to expedient floating docks.
  • Medical support. The PLAN’s fleet of hospital ships could be overwhelmed by the casualties involved in a major landing operation. Militia would augment this force with containerized medical modules deployed on a variety of commercial ships, as well as smaller vessels providing casualty evacuation and first aid.26
  • Obstacle emplacement and clearing. Several sources list emplacing and clearing mines and other obstacles among maritime militia tasks in a landing operation, without providing much further detail.27
  • Engineering support. Maritime militia forces will not be passively waiting for first echelon units to open damaged ports. Tugboats, barges, salvage ships, crane ships, and dredgers will join the effort to clear obstacles, open channels, and repair docks and other facilities.28
  • Reconnaissance, surveillance, and early warning. While much of this discussion has focused on large ships, the huge fleet of militia fishing boats would have a large role in a Taiwan operation as well, providing eyes and ears across the entire maritime theater.29
  • Deception and concealment. One major advantage the PLAN derives from having hundreds of militia ships in the battlespace is the ability to hide its most valuable platforms among the radar clutter. Many sources list deception, camouflage, and feints among the militia’s tasks. One 2018 article explains that militia ships will “use corner reflectors, false radio signals, false heat sources, etc., to set up counterfeit ships, missiles, fighters and other targets on the sea … to cause the enemy to make wrong judgments and lure the enemy into attacking the false target.”30 Flooding the strait with false targets would severely complicate Blue efforts against the invasion fleet.
  • Helicopter relay platform. The Taiwan Strait is relatively narrow, but a two-hundred-mile round trip each sortie still creates a significant strain for helicopter operations. Some militia ships will serve as “helicopter relay support platforms” (直升机中继保障平台), fitted with helipads, ammunition storage compartments, aviation fuel bladders and refueling equipment, limited repair facilities, and flight control support systems to keep the helicopters in the fight.31 … … …

Dennis J. Blasko, The PLA Army Amphibious Force: Missions, Organization, Capabilities, and Training, China Maritime Report 20 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, April 2022).

This report examines the amphibious forces of the PLA Army and their preparations for large-scale amphibious operations, particularly concerning Taiwan.

About the Author

Dennis J. Blasko is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel with 23 years of service as a Military Intelligence Officer and Foreign Area Officer specializing in China. He was an Army Attaché in Beijing and Hong Kong from 1992–96. He served in infantry units in Germany, Italy, and Korea and in Washington at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Headquarters Department of the Army (Office of Special Operations), and the National Defense University War Gaming and Simulation Center. Blasko is a graduate of the United States Military Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He has written numerous articles and chapters on the Chinese military, along with the book The Chinese Army Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, second edition (Routledge, 2012).


The PLA Army’s (PLAA) amphibious units would serve as the core of any joint force charged with invading Taiwan. As a result of the 2017 reforms, the PLAA now possesses six amphibious combined arms brigades distributed across three group armies (the 72nd, 73rd, and 74th). During a cross-strait invasion, these brigades would likely receive support from other elements of the group armies to which they belong. This could include fire support, air defense, air transport, aerial fire support, and electronic warfare/cyber-attack. Due to its large composition of two-year conscripts, the PLAA amphibious force has traditionally spent the first four months of every year developing basic individual and team skills, although a recent shift to a twice-a-year conscription cycle could allow for more complex training throughout the year. An analysis of the available reporting on 2021 training events indicates that amphibious training occurs frequently from March to October but mostly involves units at or below the battalion level. Despite efforts to bolster the PLAA’s amphibious capabilities, the force currently lacks the capacity to execute a large-scale assault on Taiwan.


One of the most important missions assigned to the People’s Liberation Army Army (PLAA) is to provide forces equipped and trained to enhance China’s military posture to deter further steps toward Taiwan independence. All four services, the PLAA, PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), and PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), plus the Strategic Support Force and Joint Logistic Support Force, have a role in this effort. If deterrence fails, one military option available to the senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership is to order the PLA to conduct an extremely difficult and complex operation known as a joint island landing campaign, which would be supported by a joint firepower campaign. Although a traditional over-the-beach amphibious landing likely will not be the first military course of action to be undertaken in a campaign directed against Taiwan, the PLA is clearly preparing for this possibility should other options fail.

The core of the PLAA’s contribution to the Taiwan deterrence and warfighting missions resides in six amphibious combined arms brigades (ACAB) assigned, two each, to the three group armies stationed closest to Taiwan in the Eastern and Southern Theater Commands (TC). Reforms undertaken since 2017, including increasing the capabilities and capacities of PLAA helicopter units and special operations forces (SOF), long-range multiple rocket launchers and air defense weapons, and non-kinetic electronic warfare and cyber-attack units, have greatly expanded the options available to PLAA commanders to conduct joint island landing and joint firepower campaigns.

If ordered to conduct operations against Taiwan or its offshore islands, the six amphibious combined arms brigades will work in concert with elements of their parent group armies and theater commands in an operation that likely will be reinforced by additional Army units from outside the region. Any PLAA action against Taiwan will be coordinated with units from the other services and forces and will also involve militia forces and civilian assets in support. The dispersion of forces in peacetime, however, will require days, if not weeks, to move and assemble units within striking range of Taiwan and prepare them for launching an assault.

Once these forces are ashore, Taiwan’s topography is not optimal for rapid, large-scale offensive, mechanized movements. Only a few beaches along its west coast are suitable for amphibious landing and behind them the terrain soon becomes mountainous and checkered with rice paddies and urban sprawl. Given the restrictions imposed by the terrain, the PLA leadership perhaps sought to modernize PLAA capabilities, as well as capabilities in the other services, to shift the decisive phase of a joint island landing campaign from a traditional over-the-beach amphibious assault followed by a mechanized ground movement inland to a series of airborne (parachute) or airmobile (helicopter) assault operations to seize ports of entry on the coast, airfields, and other key terrain/objectives closer to the center of gravity of Taiwan’s defenses to allow for the rapid insertion of second-echelon follow-on forces by sea and air.1 Nonetheless, a large-scale assault by multiple amphibious combined arms brigades remains a major component of China’s deterrence posture and any joint landing operation.2

This report first addresses the current status of the PLAA’s amphibious combined arms brigades and the support they are likely to receive from their brother Army units. It then discusses training and examines PLAA amphibious and sea-transport exercises and drills conducted in 2021 involving both amphibious and non-amphibious PLAA units. This analysis is consistent with, and supports, the U.S. Department of Defense’s assessment in 2020 and 2021 that

“Both PLAA and PLANMC [Marine Corps] units equipped for amphibious operations conduct regular company- to battalion-level amphibious training exercises, and the PLA continues to integrate aerial insertion training into larger exercises… The PLA rarely conducts amphibious exercises involving echelons above a battalion, although both PLAA and PLANMC units have emphasized the development of combined-arms battalion formations since 2012.3” … … …

About the Author

Cristina L. Garafola is an associate policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. Her research focuses on the ramifications of China’s rise for its global status, particularly with respect to defense issues, China’s influence on regional actors, and implications for the United States. Garafola served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2017 to 2019, where she focused on National Defense Strategy and Indo-Pacific strategy implementation. She has also worked at the Department of the Treasury, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Department of State. She is the co-author of the book 70 Years of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (2021), published by the China Aerospace Studies Institute. Her work has been published by RAND and in Asian Security, the Journal of Strategic Studies, War on the Rocks, and the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. Garafola holds an M.A. in China studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), a graduate certificate from the Hopkins-Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies, and a B.A. in international relations and Chinese from Hamilton College. She speaks Chinese.


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Airborne Corps would likely play an important role in a cross-strait invasion through operations behind enemy lines. During the landing campaign, the Corps would conduct paradrops or landing operations onto Taiwan, facilitated by PLA Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft. Once on island, airborne forces would seize and hold terrain and conduct a variety of operations to support the broader invasion. In recent years, the Corps has reorganized to improve its capability for mechanized maneuver and assault, leveraging the PLAAF’s larger inventories of transport aircraft, particularly the Y-20; improved the sophistication of its training at home; and gleaned insights from abroad via training with foreign militaries. Nevertheless, it is uncertain to what extent the Corps is able to overcome key challenges relevant to a cross-strait campaign. These include ensuring effective integration with similar ground force and marine units; carrying out operations in complex or degraded environments; transcending the Corps’ lack of relevant combat experience; and obtaining adequate air support.

In May 2018, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) announced a major new milestone for its Airborne Corps (空降兵): Chinese paratroopers made their inaugural jump from the Y-20, the country’s first indigenously-built aircraft in its strategic airlift fleet. In the same exercise, the Corps, which is part of the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), completed its first heavy equipment drop from the new aircraft—marking another important achievement in its modernization.1

Despite these developments and other recent modernization efforts underway within the airborne forces, the Airborne Corps’ potential role in a cross-strait invasion has received relatively little attention compared to the development of key ground and naval invasion forces.2 Lack of focus in the past on the capability of airborne units may stem from the extreme capacity limitations of the PLA’s strategic airlift forces, which restricted the PLA’s ability to deploy significant quantities of airborne troops across the strait. However, the 2018 exercise and other recent milestones presage a potentially much more active and significant role for the Airborne Corps in future cross-strait operations.

In recent years, the PLA Airborne Corps has undergone significant reorganization and modernization to improve capabilities relevant for cross-strait operations. The Corps also appears to be increasing its training on complex topics, including in combined arms and joint contexts. However, like the PLA writ large and the PLAAF in particular, the Airborne Corps suffers from a lack of combat experience. It has not conducted combat operations abroad, but rather has been tasked to support the regime during periods of domestic turmoil or for domestic humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) operations. Key questions also remain regarding the Corps’ ability to integrate with other PLA units and conduct operations in complex or degraded environments, as well as the PLAAF’s broader ability to secure the command of the air needed to enable airborne troops to land on Taiwan.

This report chronicles the changing capabilities of the PLA Airborne Corps over the past decade and provides a foundation for assessing the Corps’ role in a cross-strait invasion. It comprises four main sections. Section one briefly summarizes the force structure of the Corps. Section two reviews the Airborne Corps’ stated roles and missions in a joint island landing campaign. Section three examines recent efforts to strengthen the Corps’ ability to conduct operations relevant to a cross-strait invasion. Section four discusses ongoing challenges that the PLA Airborne Corps must overcome to effectively perform large-scale operations of this kind. The report concludes with a summary of main findings and a roadmap for future research on this topic. … … …

Conclusions and Roadmap for Future Research

The Airborne Corps is expected to support a cross-strait invasion by penetrating behind enemy lines. During the JILC, the Corps’ role would be to conduct paradrops or landing operations onto Taiwan, facilitated by PLAAF aircraft. Once on island, airborne forces are expected to seize and hold terrain and conduct a variety of operations that support the broader invasion. In recent years, the Corps has reorganized to improve its capability for mechanized maneuver and assault, leveraging the PLAAF’s larger inventories of transport aircraft, particularly the Y-20; improved the sophistication of its training at home; and gleaned insights from abroad via training with foreign militaries, while also supporting the CCP’s and PLA’s broader diplomacy efforts.

That said, key questions remain regarding the extent to which the Corps has solved potential challenges to its ability to successfully conduct airborne operations. These include effectively integrating with similar ground force and marine units, which have overlapping roles; carrying out operations in complex or degraded environments; overcoming the Corps’ lack of relevant combat experience; and delivering sufficient air support and successfully suppressing enemy fires to escort vulnerable transport aircraft behind enemy lines.

To address these gaps, future research can identify the combined arms and joint exercises in which the Corps participates and assess the frequency and complexity of those exercises. Changes to the types of aircraft or helicopter forces from which they operate may provide indications of evolving operational concepts. Also, overseas exchanges and training may offer additional insights into the Corps’ evolving capabilities and focus areas for improvement.

Finally, while this report reviews substantial evidence that the PLA expects its airborne forces to support cross-strait operations, some caution may be warranted.80 Historically, large-scale airborne operations in highly contested environments resulted in significant casualties to airborne units. Risks to airborne forces in modern warfare have only grown; capable opponents today can pose a wide array of threats to airborne forces, as well as to the transport aircraft supporting them.81 The opportunity costs of deploying airborne forces into high-end conflict scenarios—particularly if air dropped—may therefore be significant, given that transport aircraft can perform an array of other valuable missions. While there is no indication that the PLA is radically rethinking roles for the Airborne Corps, a 2020 commentary by a PLAAF Command Academy researcher took an expansive view of the Corps’ future roles, describing the PLA’s airborne force as “strategic fists” that can not only support major conflicts central to a country’s national security, but also to “defend national interests and expand [the country’s] national security space on a global scale.”82 It is possible that the PLA will increasingly seek to leverage airborne forces for a broader array of operations farther afield and in less contested environments.

John Chen and Joel Wuthnow, Chinese Special Operations in a Large-Scale Island Landing, China Maritime Report 18 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, January 2022).

About the Authors

John Chen is Chief of Data Solutions and a Lead Analyst at Exovera’s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, where he works on foreign policy, national security, and S&T issues using Chinese-language sources. He is also a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub. He holds degrees from Dartmouth College and Georgetown University.

Joel Wuthnow is a senior research fellow in the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs within the Institute for National for Strategic Studies (INSS) at the U.S. National Defense University. His research areas include Chinese foreign and security policy, Chinese military affairs, U.S.-China relations, and strategic developments in East Asia. In addition to his duties in INSS, he also serves as an adjunct professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Click here to read a curated compilation with summaries of Dr. Wuthnow’s major published works.


PLA special operations forces (SOF) would likely play important supporting roles in an amphibious assault on Taiwan. Their capabilities and training are geared towards several missions undertaken during the preparatory and main assault phases of the landing, including infiltration via special mission craft and helicopter, reconnaissance and targeting, obstacle clearance, strikes and raids, and extraction missions. While PLA SOF have made progress in recent years, several longstanding challenges could affect their performance in an island landing: integrating advanced special mission equipment for complex and dangerous missions, coordinating their operations with non-SOF supporting and supported forces, and overcoming the Chinese military’s penchant for centralized command. Even if PLA SOF are only partially effective, however, their support to the main assault force could diminish Taiwan’s ability to defend itself from a large-scale invasion.


One important but sometimes overlooked factor that will influence the success of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attempt to seize Taiwan is special operations forces (SOF) support to the main assault force.1 Special operations have contributed to amphibious assaults in several modern campaigns, including Normandy (1944), the Falkland Islands (1982), and Grenada (1983). U.S. joint doctrine for amphibious operations continues to assign SOF multiple roles, including military information support, civil-military operations, foreign humanitarian assistance, special reconnaissance, direct action, and preparation of the environment.2 During the preparatory and primary landing phases of a Taiwan invasion, and even during a potential “mop up” campaign against resistance fighters, the PLA would likely utilize SOF for similar purposes.3 Depending on their performance, these forces could enable or frustrate the operations of conventional PLA units, or perhaps have no effect at all.

This report addresses the potential role of PLA SOF in a Taiwan campaign from three perspectives.4 First is doctrine. By analyzing authoritative PLA publications, including the Lectures on the Science of Special Operations, we find that PLA SOF are assigned three roles, including a primary role in special reconnaissance and secondary roles in strikes/raids on key targets and in information operations. Second is force structure and capabilities. The PLA Navy (PLAN), PLA Air Force (PLAAF), PLA Army (PLAA), and People’s Armed Police (PAP) all possess SOF relevant to a Taiwan contingency, including some forces that have expanded in recent years. The PLA has also acquired special mission equipment relevant to amphibious missions, such as underwater personnel delivery systems. Third is training. Based on PLA print and television media reports, PLA SOF have focused on squad-level and individual skills training, but there is also evidence of SOF involvement in larger combined-arms exercises. However, we found that joint training is limited, and there is almost no open-source evidence of SOF actively preparing for information operations.

The PLA has worked steadily over the last decade to ready SOF for an island landing scenario by refining doctrine, bolstering capabilities, and improving training. However, there are several variables that will influence these units’ performance, including their technical proficiency and potential greater use of unmanned systems, which could replace humans in some roles but increase technical proficiency requirements; degree of jointness, including the need for larger and more frequent exercises with non-SOF units and continued reforms to joint command structures at and below the theater level; and the degree to which commanders try to micromanage SOF activities on the battlefield, which could lead to suboptimal results if those forces hesitate to act without explicit approval. The Taiwan and U.S. defense establishments should work to evaluate these challenges and weaknesses and determine whether plans for Taiwan’s defense adequately consider PLA SOF. … … …


… While not discussed in Chinese doctrinal sources, it is also likely that PAP or other special forces would remain on Taiwan following a successful landing to conduct counterinsurgency-type missions. One area where doctrine may still be ahead of practice is information operations. It is unclear from open-source reports that SOF are preparing for on-island propaganda work, or are training with other relevant PLA units, including the SSF, for this mission.

While PLA SOF have made progress in recent years, several variables will influence their performance in an island landing. One is whether SOF can field and integrate better special mission equipment for complex and dangerous missions. While China’s defense industry undoubtedly continues to improve manned special mission equipment for SOF, researchers have also stressed the utility of unmanned undersea and aerial vehicles for dangerous special operations like mine and obstacle clearing.91 Coordination and effective application of unmanned systems will call for more demanding training and recruitment requirements within PLA SOF.

Another variable is whether SOF can effectively coordinate their operations with non-SOF supporting and supported forces. How much coordination is necessary would likely vary by unit composition and mission type. SOF units with a diverse range of organic capabilities, specialized hardware, and dedicated support units may require less joint coordination than units tasked to accomplish special operations in which the mission rather than the unit is defined as “special.” Elite commando units like the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six with dedicated transport and intelligence support units may require little interaction with main landing forces, but others, such as brigade-sized army units that would deploy alongside and directly support the main landing forces, may need to coordinate more extensively. In the latter case, which appears to describe the majority of the PLA’s SOF units, the lack of permanent joint structures below the theater level could diminish the effectiveness of joint operations involving special forces, potentially leading to catastrophic results similar to the failed U.S. hostage rescue attempt in Iran during Operation Eagle Claw.92 Moreover, some relevant units, including from the SSF, PAP, and Airborne Corps, are outside the theater structure, leading to questions about joint command even at that level. Evidence that these potential shortcomings are being addressed would be inclusion of Airborne Corps and PAP SOF in theater command-led exercises; the establishment of permanent lower-level joint commands or liaison arrangements; and real-world operations, perhaps in counter-terrorism missions within China and farther from home, that would require SOF to learn lessons and adapt.

Chinese special operations would also have to reconcile the imperative for small, clandestine operations behind enemy lines with a desire for unified command under the joint command construct. Generally, there is a tension between the Leninist emphasis on centralization and the need to grant autonomy to lower PLA commanders. This could be especially problematic in special operations: centralized command could lead to poor performance if small units fail to act due to the lack of explicit authorization, or if they are forced to maintain radio communications and thus reveal their positions to the enemy. Evidence from training or updated doctrine could offer signs of whether SOF teams are given adequate autonomy in the field.

Nevertheless, even partially effective special operations could diminish Taiwan’s defenses and thus should be explicitly addressed in defensive concepts. Taiwan’s articulation of a more “asymmetric and innovative” way of defeating an island landing, which has been discussed in recent years under the “overall defense concept” label, should explicitly acknowledge the threat posed by Chinese special operations forces preceding and during all phases of an island landing and determine whether additional changes to tactics and capabilities are needed.93 Those approaches should also identify PLA weaknesses, such as lack of technical proficiency, limited jointness, and potential overreliance on radio communications for command and control, and tailor responses accordingly. It is also worth exploring whether, and how, U.S. SOF may work with their Taiwan counterparts to evaluate the dangers posed by PLA SOF, share best practices, and conduct joint training.94

Tom Fox, The PLA Army’s New Helicopters: An “Easy Button” for Crossing the Taiwan Strait? China Maritime Report 17 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, December 2021).

In this report, U.S. Army Major Tom Fox examines the feasibility of a PLA Army air assault across the Taiwan Strait.

About the Author

Maj. Tom Fox is an aviation officer in the U.S. Army. From 2018 to 2021, he served as an assistant professor of international affairs and Chinese politics in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point. He holds a BSFS from Georgetown University and an MPP from the Harvard Kennedy School. The opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the U.S. Military Academy, U.S. Army, or Department of Defense. The author would like to extend a special thanks to Dennis Blasko, Kim Fassler, Joel Wuthnow, and John Chen for their helpful guidance in the early stages of research for this project. Nonetheless, the views herein are the author’s alone, and that applies to any errors of fact, omission, or interpretation.


This report examines the potential roles and missions of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) new rotary wing capabilities in a cross-strait invasion. Looking specifically at the helicopter units of the PLA Army (PLAA), it discusses two possible scenarios in which these forces could serve as the main thrust in a campaign to seize control of Taiwan. In the first scenario, the PLAA would use nearly all of its rotary wing inventory simultaneously to overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses and quickly convince the country’s political leadership to surrender. In a second “unconventional” scenario, the PLAA would risk the destruction of older helicopters in order to launch a sudden attack against the island, thereby achieving the element of surprise while saving its most capable platforms for lengthy follow-on operations to fully subdue the island. Based on analysis of the scale, complexity, and frequency of recent PLAA exercises, this report argues that China is at best a decade away from having the ability to seize Taiwan by either approach.


China watchers have long paid close attention to the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) modernization efforts, which have gone on more or less continuously since Deng Xiaoping included them as one of his Four Modernizations. While much academic and media coverage of this process has understandably focused on high dollar and high technology platforms like fighter jets, submarines, and aircraft carriers, the PLA has also made significant investments in updating its rotary wing capabilities. Not only has the PLA developed and acquired more different types of advanced helicopters, but it has also bought more of them, evolved their organizational structure, and trained their pilots and aircrews to feature these capabilities more prominently. Due to the historical centrality of Taiwan “reunification” and recently increased cross-strait tensions, these developments beg the big question: how might these new helicopters help the PLA invade Taiwan?

This report seeks to answer that question, focusing specifically on the rotary wing capabilities of the PLA Army (PLAA). It proceeds in four parts. Part one explores the new rotary wing capabilities by analyzing the helicopters themselves, the organizations fielding them, and the training and doctrine for their employment. Part two focuses on scenario development. It presents two possible approaches that the PLAA might use to leverage these new capabilities in a Taiwan invasion. Part three provides an assessment of the PLAA’s current readiness to play the roles envisioned in the two scenarios. Part four turns to Taiwan’s options for responding to these developments and how best to counter the PLA’s increased capabilities. This report focuses on changes within the PLAA’s Aviation Corps. While rotary wing capability development has also improved the PLA Navy’s (PLAN) options for anti-submarine warfare and amphibious operations, the bulk of significant change has occurred within the PLAA. With these new capabilities, a massive cross-strait air assault may look like an “easy button” to avoid the notorious difficulty of amphibious operations. This report argues that the PLAA currently lacks the capabilities needed to serve this function in a cross-strait invasion scenario. … … …

Conclusion: Not an “Easy Button,” Yet

The PLAA has developed significant rotary wing capabilities in the last decade, and it appears poised to make even greater gains in the next decade judging by its continued fielding of new helicopters and commitment to training for the complexity of modern battlefields. While it takes a long time to build pilot, aircrew, and unit proficiency and even longer to integrate that capability with ground brethren and the joint force, PLA watchers should continue to closely follow developments in this space. In theory, they could eventually become a game-changer for the military balance across the strait, but they are not that yet. The PLA might decide to test these new capabilities on a softer target like Kinmen or Matsu islands,51 although that comes with significant political risk, discussion of which is beyond the scope of this analysis. From solely a military perspective, those islands are much harder for Taiwan to defend due to the extremely favorable geography (small size and proximity to the mainland) for the PLA.

In the final analysis, all cross-strait military scenarios depend significantly on the political circumstances in which they would play out. Air assault operations to cross the Taiwan Strait represent a new development and present Taiwan with another challenge for defending the island, but not an immediately pressing one and not an undeterrable one. Nonetheless, as the PLA continues to strengthen these capabilities, the CCP will aim to exploit additional political leverage gained by shifting the military balance further in its favor. While deterrence remains possible now and well into the future, the most important variable to watch is the risk tolerance of CCP leaders for bearing the significant casualties that would accompany any attempts to take Taiwan by force. Air assaults are not an “easy button” for the CCP, but in the next decade they will become a more realistic option with lower costs than an amphibious assault. And it could be a button political circumstances tempt CCP leaders to press.

J. Michael DahmChinese Ferry Tales: The PLA’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Support of Over-the-Shore LogisticsChina Maritime Report 16 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, November 2021).

Pathbreaking contribution by J. Michael Dahm, a retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer and a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Among his Indo-Pacific assignments, he formerly served as Assistant U.S. Naval Attaché in Beijing—& graciously hosted me & my CMSI colleagues there. Check out the revealing accompanying graphics: 47 figures & 7 tables!

The analyses, perspectives, and opinions expressed in this report are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy, APL, or APL sponsors.


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has long provided indications it will use civilian shipping in direct support of a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. To date, however, there has been little effort to gauge the PLA’s actual ability to leverage China’s commercial fleet in the most challenging part of any such campaign—operations over-the-shore. Drawing from ship tracking data, satellite imagery, media reporting, and the writings of PLA experts, this report analyzes recent military-civil fusion exercises and training to assess current capabilities. A PLA exercise in summer 2020 indicates significant developments in the use of new technologies by select Chinese-flagged merchant ships for over-the-shore logistics support to amphibious operations. In 2021, the PLA also demonstrated the use of roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ferries as auxiliary landing ships in amphibious exercises and tested a new floating causeway that could be used in a large-scale amphibious operation. Notwithstanding these developments, this report concludes that as of 2021, China’s merchant fleet is unable to provide the amphibious landing capabilities or the maritime logistics in austere or challenging environments necessary to have a significant impact in an amphibious landing operation on Taiwan.


The PLA will probably not be able to conduct a successful cross-strait invasion of Taiwan until and unless it masters what the U.S. military calls joint logistics over-the-shore (JLOTS). While “JLOTS” is not a term Chinese military authors typically use, they have nevertheless considered how the PLA should conduct logistical support immediately after a large-scale amphibious assault and have commented on such capabilities the PLA may require. These capabilities include unloading in rudimentary or damaged port facilities; using temporary piers or wharves to offload vehicles and supplies directly to shore; and unloading cargo ships, including RO-RO ships, at-sea and then lightering materiel to a captured port or beachhead.

PLA authors uniformly assert that civilian ships, working closely with the military, will be an integral component of any major cross-sea logistics operation, including over-the-shore operations. In recent years, the PLA has conducted a number of exercises to bolster military-civil fusion (MCF) in amphibious operations. To what extent have these exercises helped develop the JLOTS capabilities needed for a Taiwan invasion?

This report sheds light on this vital question by carefully examining MCF exercises in 2020 and 2021. In the summer of 2020, the PLA’s Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF) conducted a complex, large-scale maritime logistics exercise in China’s Eastern Theater, the military theater that would be responsible for a cross-strait invasion. Taking place in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, the exercise— called EASTERN TRANSPORTATION-PROJECTION 2020A—featured the JLSF working closely with a large number of substantial civilian RO-RO ferries, cargo ships, tugs, and construction vessels as well as PLA landing craft in an amphibious logistics exercise that became increasingly complex over two months. While the PLA did not repeat this exercise in the summer of 2021, it did conduct unit-level training in the Southern Theater Command and a large exercise in the Eastern Theater Command. These amphibious exercises appeared to move beyond benign logistics or the deployment of second echelon forces in amphibious landing areas. They saw civilian RO-RO ferries working in concert with larger PLA Navy (PLAN) amphibious assault ships, deploying first echelon forces offshore in beach landing operations. In September 2021, the PLA also tested and evaluated a new floating causeway system, an effort to improve on a modular floating pier showcased in 2020.

This report integrates open-source media reports with ships’ tracking data from automatic identification system (AIS) terminals and commercial satellite imagery to reconstruct the 2020 and 2021 MCF exercises. Based on an in-depth analysis of the events, the report offers the following conclusions about the PLA’s capabilities to conduct amphibious operations using civilian ships as a core component of a large-scale amphibious operation:

  • As of 2021, the PLA and its reserve civilian merchant fleet are probably unable to provide significant amphibious landing capabilities or the maritime logistics in austere or challenging environments necessary to support a large-scale, cross-strait invasion of Taiwan.
  • The PLA’s use of civilian shipping in amphibious exercises appears to be limited to select ships demonstrating nascent capabilities, but not the capacities necessary to support a cross-strait invasion. However, capacities could increase rapidly after initial capabilities are formally adopted and exercise participation expands to a larger number of civilian ships.
  • 2020-2021 exercise events appeared to be scripted and focused on establishing procedures and coordination among military units and civilian components.
  • The 2020 JLSF exercise featured experimentation with a number of novel logistics capabilities that have been slow to develop and have likely not yet matured probably due to a lack of investment. In a possible change in that trend, 2021 activity saw the introduction of the first new amphibious landing technologies in over fifteen years.
  • In most cases, civilian shipping support to amphibious exercises was provided during daylight hours; events were timed for when tides and weather conditions were favorable; many evolutions took place in the sheltered waters of an inner harbor.
  • In the 2020 JLSF exercise, there was no evidence of simulated combat conditions during the exercise; no defensive actions (e.g. convoying, escorting, evasion or diversion) were observed. In the 2021 amphibious landing exercises, civilian ferries appeared to be deployed and positioned to mitigate potential threats to these vulnerable ships.
  • These 2020-2021 exercises likely provide a baseline for the PLA’s use of civilian shipping to support large-scale amphibious logistics and provide a roadmap for the types of capabilities and capacities the PLA may need for future operations. … … …


As of 2021, the PLA and its reserve civilian merchant fleet are probably unable to provide the maritime logistics in austere or challenging environments necessary to support a cross-strait invasion of Taiwan. Although 2021 exercises employed RO-RO ferries as reserve amphibious landing ships, deploying infantry in assault boats or amphibious armor, this likely represents a very modest augmentation for a potential PLA landing force. Despite concerns that China could bring its vast fleet of merchant ships to bear on an operation to invade Taiwan or conduct some other military operation, there are practical realities that should limit such concerns. The complexity of amphibious operations appears to have limited military-civil fusion to a handful of select ships that provide the PLA with relatively modest capacities.

The apparent increase in civilian ship participation in PLA amphibious exercises may simply reflect the PLA taking advantage of excess RO-RO ferry availability during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the appearance of new amphibious logistics technologies, probably years in the making, suggests otherwise. The continued integration of civilian ships into PLA operations will be telling, especially as exercise participation extends to ships other than the large Bohai Gulf-based ferries. Once procedures have been established and the PLA has gained some experience integrating civilian vessels into amphibious operations, there may be great potential to rapidly scale up the use of civilian ships in combat support or amphibious logistics roles. The expanding roles for merchant ships in military operations may present challenges for China’s adversaries in terms of detecting, targeting, and countering these civilian vessels.

However, scaling up combat and logistics operations can be a challenge that increases geometrically in complexity as numbers of participating forces and volumes increase. Loading and moving eight civilian ships once is very different from loading and moving eighty ships once or, more likely, coordinating dozens of ships to load and move materiel, equipment, and personnel for days or weeks, all while taking enemy fire. In the 2020 over-the-shore logistics exercise, the landing and unloading operations appear to have been completely unopposed. In the 2021 logistics operations, there was also no evidence observed in the tracks of the ships or satellite imagery that the exercise sought to simulate the presence of an enemy force. No defensive actions (e.g. convoying, escorting, evasion or diversion) were observed. However, based on observations of defensive actions taken in the 2021 landing exercises, the PLA and its merchant support fleet may be changing their mindset about putting these ships in harm’s way.

The appearance of a new floating causeway system and landing platform in 2021 indicates that the PLA is investing in better over-the-shore logistics technologies. These platforms could provide the PLA with significant capabilities and access to beach landing areas with military or civilian ships. That said, Project 019 was initiated in 2001 and heralded by the PLA as a major (if not widely known) project to create a capability for at-sea transfer and unloading of materiel and equipment in austere conditions. Prototype capabilities appeared over a decade later. By 2020, it appeared the PLA was still utilizing those same prototype capabilities in Exercise EASTERN TRANSPORTATION-PROJECTION 2020A. Given these long timelines for development and the challenges the PLA may be experiencing with its new floating causeway system, it is unlikely the PLA will rapidly increase its over-the-shore logistics capability in the next several years.

A group of Chinese military authors affiliated with the PLA’s Military Transportation University and the JLSF Transportation and Projection Bureau provide some insights about the state of PLA over-the-shore logistics capabilities. In January 2020, they wrote that the Chinese military’s “dockless unloading equipment” (无码头卸载装备) is essentially a “technical reserve.” Most of the specialized equipment are prototypes, according to these PLA authors. They observe that dockless unloading equipment is usually kept in storage and seldom used, which provides significant challenges for training and procuring the necessary volume of equipment that might otherwise support large-scale operations. In their critique, they conclude, “[The Chinese] military’s dockless unloading is still in its infancy. There are still many weak links.”121 That January 2020 assessment is likely accurate based on detailed observations of Exercise EASTERN TRANSPORTATION-PROJECTION 2020A and 2021 exercise activity. How those nascent capabilities grow in the coming years should be watched closely.

The 2020 and 2021 exercises integrating civilian shipping, especially large RO-RO ferries, may have provided the PLA and its JLSF with a baseline assessment for where the Chinese military is with regard to large-scale amphibious operations and logistics. The lessons learned from the JLSF’s experience over the summer of 2020 may provide a roadmap for the types of capabilities and capacities the JLSF and the larger PLA joint force may need for future operations. Depending on the PLA’s take-aways, one might expect to see what are probably still prototypes like the floating pier system, the new floating causeway, and the new landing platform go through additional experimentation and exercises, possibly leading to large-scale production of these types of capabilities to support multiple landing points in a Taiwan invasion. Similarly, ad-hoc capabilities like deck barges modified into an at-sea RO-RO unloading platform may evolve into tailored systems with features supporting the unique requirements for loading and unloading military equipment from both naval vessels and civilian ships at-sea.

Despite these seemingly negative critiques of PLA amphibious landing capabilities in general, and over-the-shore, “dockless” logistics capabilities in particular, it would be a mistake to underestimate the ingenuity and tenacity of the PLA. An evaluation of these 2020 and 2021 exercises should be considered in the context of a Chinese approach to problem solving rather than a Western opinion about how amphibious logistics should be done. The PLA’s reserve merchant fleet probably does not currently have the capabilities and capacities to support a disciplined, effective, and efficient amphibious operation with over-the-shore logistics in support of a Taiwan invasion. However, efficiency is not necessarily a prerequisite for success, especially for the PLA.

Clearly, the PLA has started to work through what may be required to support an invasion of Taiwan and how exactly that will be done. The Chinese Communist Party can leverage a national mobilization of maritime shipping on a massive scale and the PLA clearly intends to exploit that capability. Such a mobilization of civilian shipping to support cross-strait operations may be very high risk and could involve extremely high losses. However, there is a certain “quality in quantity.” There are few challenges related to efficiency and attrition that the Chinese military could not simply address with overwhelming mass and a tolerance for loss. Future exercises like those explored in this report merit close scrutiny to provide indications of the trajectory of PLA amphibious and logistics capabilities.

Sources and Methods

This report fuses a variety of publically and commercially available sources to gain detailed insights into often complex military activity and capabilities. Analysis is supported with AIS data from MarineTraffic—Global Ship Tracking Intelligence.122 Google Earth images are attributed to the commercial satellite provider and published under the Google Earth terms of service.123 The report also features commercial satellite imagery from Planet Labs Inc., the leading provider of global daily Earth data. Medium-resolution satellite imagery from the PlanetScope constellation (ground sample distance (GSD) ~3.7 meters) was obtained through Planet’s Education and Research Program, which allows the publication of PlanetScope imagery for non-commercial research purposes.124 High-resolution satellite imagery from Planet’s SkySat constellation (GSD ~0.5 meters) was purchased by the author through SkyWatch Space Applications Inc.125 The SkyWatch team’s advice and assistance in accessing archived imagery and tasking satellite collection was greatly appreciated. The author is responsible for all annotations of satellite images contained in this report. Planet Labs retains copyrights to the underlying PlanetScope and SkySat images, which should not be reproduced without the expressed permission of Planet Labs.

Conor M. Kennedy, The New Chinese Marine Corps: A “Strategic Dagger” in a Cross-Strait Invasion, China Maritime Report 15 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, October 2021).

This report discusses the recent expansion/reform of the Chinese Marine Corps in the context of a Taiwan invasion scenario.


Since 2017, the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) has undergone significant expansion, growing from two brigades to eight. The major impetus behind these efforts is a desire to build the service arm into an expeditionary force capable of operating in most environments at short notice. However, PLANMC reform has also bolstered its ability to contribute to major campaigns along China’s periphery, including a Taiwan invasion scenario. This report examines the PLANMC’s role in a cross-strait amphibious campaign and analyzes how new additions to the force could be used against Taiwan. It explores what roles the PLANMC would likely play in the three major phases of a Taiwan invasion: preliminary operations; assembly, embarkation, and transit; and assault landing and establishment of a beachhead. It also examines new capabilities designed for operations beyond the initial beach assault. This report argues the PLANMC is not being configured for a traditional landing operation, but rather is focusing development toward new operational concepts that could provide unique capabilities in support of the larger campaign.


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has two main amphibious ground combat forces, amphibious combined arms brigades in the army and the marine corps within the navy. For many years, the marine corps remained quite limited. Initially a single brigade and later expanded to two brigades, it could not contribute much to a large-scale landing campaign across the Taiwan Strait. PLA reforms in 2017 have transformed the People’s Liberation Army Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC). The force has tripled in size, garnering significant attention from Chinese and outside observers. The PLAN has also built a number of large amphibious ships to carry these forces.

While the PLANMC’s latest developments indicate the force is preparing for more diverse missions, including greater roles in overseas operations, the service arm’s chief mission remains amphibious warfare. This has important implications for Taiwanese security. Advances in its ability to conduct modern amphibious combat operations may both enhance its effectiveness in traditional beach landings and introduce new capabilities in support of the overall joint campaign against Taiwan. This report examines the PLANMC’s role in a cross-strait amphibious campaign and analyzes how new additions to the force could be used against Taiwan.

This report contains three main sections. The first section discusses the service arm’s transformation and future orientation. The second section examines progress in brigade development to gauge readiness and available capabilities for landing operations. The third section analyzes the PLANMC’s likely roles in the different phases of a Taiwan invasion campaign (i.e., a “joint island landing campaign”) and explores its current ability to perform these roles. … … …


The PLANMC does not appear to be optimizing itself for a traditional amphibious landing against Taiwan. The force is smaller than the PLA group armies trained and equipped for a cross-strait invasion. With multiple types of battalions in each brigade, it is not configured for large-scale opposed landing operations. Compared to the PLAA’s aviation brigades, the single marine corps aviation brigade, lack of close air support, and the still unconfirmed number of air assault battalions provide very limited vertical envelopment capabilities. More importantly, the expanding missions of the PLANMC are focused overseas. As such, the PLANMC on its own will not be the force that breaks Taiwan.

Nonetheless, the PLANMC will play its part if a cross-strait invasion is launched and various force improvements will benefit its utility in the JILC. Headquarters is leading an effort to revamp the abilities of battalion commanders and staff, hoping it can improve coordination of battalion operations. New training programs are increasing the abilities of the force to transport over long distances and operate in various environments, including urban areas. Innovations in transport using RO-RO ships may allow additional amphibious lift for PLANMC forces, providing solutions for an enduring challenge for the overall JILC. The newly created brigades will eventually bring additional capabilities to the equation.

With the above limitations in mind, PLANMC scheme of maneuver ashore might be focused on smaller-scale landing operations combining ship-to-shore and ship-to-objective maneuver and special operations throughout the depth of amphibious objective areas in support of the larger campaign. Operations could focus on rapid multi-dimensional landings and maneuver to control vital objectives and conduct frontal and rear attacks against defenders.109 The PLANMC is also uniquely positioned to provide ample amphibious reconnaissance and special operations forces for preliminary operations.

Senior PRC and PLAN leadership have publicly attached great importance to the PLANMC. The first commandant of the force stated it would “strive to become a strategic dagger that General Secretary Xi and the Central Military Commission can trust and upon which they can rely heavily.”110 With significant support for their development, the PLANMC will be expected to fulfill a greater role in future operations, including a large-scale amphibious landing against Taiwan.

Eric Heginbotham, Chinese Views of the Military Balance in the Western Pacific, China Maritime Report 14 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, June 2021).

Dr. Eric Heginbotham is a principal research scientist at MIT’s Center for International Studies and a specialist in Asian security issues. Before joining MIT, he was a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation, where he led research projects on China, Japan, and regional security issues and regularly briefed senior military, intelligence, and political leaders. Prior to that he was a Senior Fellow of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. After graduating from Swarthmore College, Heginbotham earned his Ph.D. in political science from MIT. He is fluent in Chinese and Japanese, and was a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve.


This report examines Chinese views about the military balance of power between China and the United States in the Western Pacific. It argues that while there is no single “Chinese” view on this topic, Chinese analysts tend to agree that 1) the gap between the two militaries has narrowed significantly in recent years, 2) the Chinese military still lags in important ways, and 3) Chinese military inferiority vis-à-vis the U.S. increases the further away it operates from the Mainland. In terms of specific areas of relative strength, the Chinese military has shown the greatest improvements in military hardware, but has farther to go in the area of jointness, training, and other military “software.” Nevertheless, despite continued criticism from senior civilian leaders, training quality has likely improved due to a greater focus on realism, and recent military reforms have, to a degree, improved the prospects for jointness.


There is no single Chinese view of the military balance. As in the United States, there are many perspectives, informed by personal biases and access to different source material. Conclusions also differ depending on the specific circumstances of each scenario—the adversary, geography, warning time, casus belli, and early crisis decision making. To the extent that it is possible to generalize, the range of Chinese assessments do not, in aggregate, appear to dramatically differ from professional or informed analyses by Western experts. The Chinese leadership recognizes both the remarkable strides that have been made in modernizing the Chinese military, as well as important continuing weaknesses. Chinese analysts agree with American counterparts that Chinese capabilities are far more formidable immediately offshore than they are in more distant locations.

To an extent, the reason for broad consensus across the Pacific lies in the exchange of ideas between Western and Chinese analysts. Chinese views may be a function of ready access to translated Western analyses, which in turn rely heavily on anecdotes and analyses found in published Chinese sources.

To say that there is general agreement on the balance of power does not imply a complete agreement or identity between Chinese and U.S. views. Systematic biases may affect the assessments of each state, as well as different groups within them. High levels of U.S. operational proficiency, a product of sophisticated training structures and regimes developed after the Vietnam War, may alert some U.S. analysts to factors that may not be considered by Chinese counterparts. Only recently, for example, has “jointness” become a guiding criterion in Chinese military decision making. Similarly, as PLA modernization contributes to an improved understanding of modern war, the analysis of military balance issues has expanded to include greater consideration of dynamic factors in combat. Improved assessment may, in turn, contribute to a more circumspect (i.e., pessimistic) assessment of the balance even as it increases Chinese prospects for overcoming challenges.

This report comprises five main parts. The first section outlines the types of source materials that reflect Chinese views, and the second touches on analytic methods behind Chinese assessments. The third section assesses how Chinese leaders and analysts view the overall balance of power today and its evolution over the last two decades. The fourth section discusses particular areas of perceived strength and weakness in PLA capabilities relative to those of the United States. The fifth section examines how Chinese analysts view the potential future impact of intensified competition with the United States and the latter’s increasingly sharp focus on competition with China. The report concludes with a summary of findings. … … …

Jennifer Rice and Erik Robb, The Origins of “Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection”China Maritime Report 13 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, February 2021).

This report traces the origins and development of China’s current naval strategy: “Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection.” Near Seas Defense is a regional, defensive concept concerned with ensuring China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. Its primary focus is preparing to fight and win informatized local wars within the first island chain. Far Seas Protection has both peacetime and wartime elements. In peacetime, the Chinese navy is expected to conduct a range of “non-war military operations” such as participating in international peacekeeping, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, evacuating Chinese citizens from danger, and engaging in joint exercises and naval diplomacy. In wartime, the PLAN could be tasked with securing China’s use of strategic sea lanes and striking important nodes and high-value targets in the enemy’s strategic depth. Nears Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection is rooted in the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Mao Zedong.

About the Authors

  • Jennifer Rice is a senior intelligence analyst with the Office of Naval Intelligence. Her portfolio includes issues of naval strategy, modernization, diplomacy, and force employment. She completed her MA in Security Policy Studies at George Washington University and received a BA in English and Political Science from James Madison University.
  • Erik Robb is a senior intelligence analyst with the Office of Naval Intelligence focused on Asian military affairs and DoD contingency planning. Erik received a BA from Yale University in East Asian Studies and an MA from UC San Diego in International Relations. He is also a graduate of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center.
  • The views and opinions expressed herein by the authors do not represent the policies or position of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy, and are the sole responsibility of the authors.


In 2015, China publicized its current naval strategy of “Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection,” which calls for the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to expand the geographic and mission scope of its operations.1 The strategy retains the PLAN’s longstanding focus on defending China’s mainland from attack and asserting national sovereignty claims, but adds new emphasis to safeguarding China’s economic development and strategic interests by protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and engaging in long-distance security missions. The concept of Far Seas Protection is guiding the PLAN’s transformation into a global navy able to conduct both high-intensity combat operations and a variety of peacetime missions. This transformation is well underway and Beijing likely has established goals for its completion. However, these goals are probably not rigid because of factors beyond China’s control. The pace at which the PLAN completes this transformation will depend on other countries’ willingness to accommodate China’s naval ambitions and on the emergence of new global missions arising from transnational security threats or humanitarian crises. … …

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Intellectual Roots

China’s current naval strategy is rooted in the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Mao Zedong. Although other Western and Chinese thinkers have also informed the PLAN’s strategy, the influence of Mahan and Mao is unmistakable. Far Seas Protection’s emphasis on safeguarding China’s SLOCs and overseas interests echoes Mahan’s thinking about the interdependency of economic prosperity and naval power.24 Mahan believed that a strong nation requires a powerful navy to protect its overseas commercial interests and the SLOCs connecting those interests. He also believed the corollary, that a nation’s commercial interests generate the wealth to fund a powerful navy. Beijing increasingly links China’s future economic development with sea power. As described in one authoritative volume, “the seas and oceans bear on the enduring peace, lasting stability and sustainable development of China… it is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military forces structure commensurate with its national security and development interests.”25 Secure SLOCs are the “lifelines” of China’s economic development.26

Mahan further maintained that the imperative to control SLOCs would cause great powers to compete for “command of the sea,” which he defined as “that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it.”27 A nation that enjoys command of the sea can shield its seaborne trade from enemy disruption. China’s strategy incorporates Mahan’s concepts of command of the sea as well as sea control (these concepts are not identical; sea control is more limited in scope to temporary control of a specific area).28 The PLA has long viewed command of the sea (制海权) as critical to the success of blockade or island landing campaigns against Taiwan. The PLA is now emphasizing control more comprehensively across multiple domains, in light of today’s increasingly complex and informatized operations. “Comprehensive control” (综合控制权) is the ability to control the surface, undersea, air, and space domains and seamlessly integrate the forces operating in these domains through networked information and command systems. 29 In this expanded conceptualization of sea control, the networked systems are every bit as important as the ships and aircraft they are meant to support.

China’s strategy also demonstrates the enduring influence of Mao, whose concept of active defense (积极防御) remains the PLA’s guiding principle.30 Active defense combines strategic defense with campaign offense and is a fluid concept; its focus shifts from defense to offense when conditions are advantageous to do so. Mao recognized that although defense is important, ultimately offense is necessary to bring about victory.31 This concern for the offense resonates with contemporary Chinese strategists. The authors of the 2015 Defense White Paper instruct the PLA to “seize the strategic

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initiative in military struggle.”32 According to the 2013 Science of Military Strategy, future guidance to China’s navy will “elevate offense from the campaign and tactical levels to the strategic level.” China “cannot wait for the enemy to attack,” but rather should engage in “strategic attack activities.”33 Similarly, another source notes that once an “opponent has already set in motion his war machine, and avoiding war is no longer possible…[China] must set in motion [its] war machine to prevent being passively caught up in war” and to control the war’s initiation and escalation.34Although China frames its military power as a means of defense, Chinese leaders and strategists provide the authority to act offensively and proactively to defend its interests. … …

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The PLAN’s Future—Power Projection, Expeditionary Missions, and Nuclear Submarines

The PLAN’s strategy of Near Seas Defense and Far Seas Protection and China’s new priority to defend the maritime domain will likely shape the composition and employment of naval forces for decades to come. Far Seas Protection will require greater emphasis on global power projection and expeditionary capabilities. China’s aircraft carrier force may become one of the most visible aspects of its modern, blue-water force and the PLAN will need to develop new concepts of operations and tactics to enable secure, integrated aircraft carrier task group operations in the far seas. Chinese military experts have advocated for a force of up to six aircraft

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carriers, including nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, by the mid-2030s in order to better accomplish China’s national defense missions and sustain blue-water operations.6

In addition, Far Seas Protection will require the PLAN to refine and enhance its ability to support global expeditionary operations to secure China’s national strategic and economic interests, including defense or interdiction of SLOCs and force projection in littoral areas around the world. China will acquire large, multi-mission expeditionary platforms such as LPDs and LHAs for this purpose. These ships will likely carry out a variety of missions including counter-piracy, troop insertion, and HA/DR and medical response.

As the PLAN continues its effort to “go global” to fulfill the requirements of the new naval strategy in the far seas, Beijing will likely identify additional missions for its nuclear submarine force. The PLAN has already begun to deploy submarines into the Indian Ocean to support ongoing security operations.65 If Beijing wishes to extend the distance or increase the number of its far seas submarine deployments, the PLAN will likely need to acquire additional nuclear submarines because they have greater endurance than conventional submarines, which make up most of China’s current submarine force.

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Beijing’s Timeline to Advance Its Naval Strategy

China likely adheres to a clear timeline for aspects of naval development over which Beijing exerts direct control, such as platform construction and far seas deployments. During his speech to the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi outlined requirements for the PLA to become a mechanized force by 2020, a fully modernized force by 2035, and a “world-class” force by 2050.66 Beijing conveys more specific near-term guidance through its Five Year Plans, which direct research, development, and acquisition, and through the Outline for Military Training.67 Each service of the PLA likely has a force modernization strategy and training plan linked to these directives.

However, certain aspects of Far Seas Protection are outside of Beijing’s control either because they rely on foreign partnerships and cooperation or because they are driven by circumstances. For example, China’s pursuit of overseas basing and port access agreements is opportunistic and depends on the willingness of potential host countries to accommodate the PLAN. Although Beijing might seek to influence favorable responses from these countries through infrastructure investment, diplomatic and military engagement, and other economic incentives, the potential host’s receptivity to China’s naval presence is ultimately beyond Beijing’s control. Furthermore, unless Beijing changes its longstanding aversion to formal alliances, other countries have no binding incentive to aid China during wartime.

Security cooperation efforts similarly rely on regional or international consensus to implement. The UN endorsed international counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, enabling foreign navies to conduct security operations in Somalian waters. Without this type of top-level support, and the underlying security crisis that required action, the PLAN may never have embarked on a continuous far seas mission in 2008. In contrast, since at least 2012 Beijing has publicly called for international support to combat piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, working through the UN, bilateral exchanges, and other forums to open a debate and seek consensus on a cooperative security effort.68 China’s 2015 Defense White Paper pledged to help African countries ensure navigational security in the Gulf of Guinea.69 However, despite these efforts, Beijing has not succeeded in gaining the regional and international support to establish a security coalition in the Gulf of Guinea. The emergence of security threats, international unrest, natural disasters, and other humanitarian crises cannot be predicted or directed, but all of these provide opportunities to engage military forces, often in new ways and in new areas of the world.

Zoe Haver, Sansha City in China’s South China Sea Strategy: Building a System of Administrative ControlChina Maritime Report 12 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, January 2021).

China established Sansha City in 2012 to administer the bulk of its territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. Sansha is headquartered on Woody Island. The city’s jurisdiction includes the Paracel Islands, Zhongsha Islands, and Spratly Islands and most of the waters within China’s “nine-dash line.” Sansha is responsible for exercising administrative control, implementing military-civil fusion, and carrying out the day-to-day work of rights defense, stability maintenance, environmental protection, and resource development. Since 2012, each level of the Chinese party-state system has worked to develop Sansha, improving the city’s physical infrastructure and transportation, communications, corporate ecosystem, party-state institutions, and rights defense system. In effect, the city’s development has produced a system of normalized administrative control. This system ultimately allows China to govern contested areas of the South China Sea as if they were Chinese territory.

Key Findings

  • Sansha is responsible for administering China’s maritime and territorial claims in the South China Sea on a day-to-day basis from the front lines of the disputes.
  • Sansha’s physical infrastructure, transportation, communications, economy, party-state institutions, and defense capabilities form a unified system that continuously strengthens the city’s capacity to exercise administrative control over contested areas of the South China Sea.
  • The city uses civilian-administrative means, including maritime law enforcement and maritime militia operations, rather than military force to advance China’s position in the South China Sea disputes.
  • The development of Sansha is gradually civilianizing and institutionalizing China’s efforts to control the South China Sea, providing a mechanism to govern contested areas as if they were Chinese territory.
  • The city’s development aligns closely with China’s broader strategy in the South China Sea, which aims to consolidate China’s claims while deterring other states from strengthening their own claims. This strategy relies on China Coast Guard (CCG) and maritime militia operations backed by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.
  • Military-civil fusion is the guiding principle of the city’s development, which ensures that all aspects of Sansha’s development ultimately serve China’s sovereignty and security interests.
  • Improvements to Sansha’s physical infrastructure and transportation, including the construction of a smart microgrid on Woody Island, allow Woody Island and other occupied features to accommodate a growing number of military, civilian, and law enforcement personnel and guarantee the continuous operation of important facilities.
  • The development of the city’s communications infrastructure enables local leaders to monitor and govern vast swathes of contested maritime space with ease.
  • Sansha’s leaders have systematically mobilized private and state-owned enterprises in support of nearly every aspect of the city’s daily operations and long-term development.
  • The expansion of the city’s party-state institutions allows municipal authorities to directly govern contested areas of the South China Sea and ensures the primacy of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests in local decision-making.
  • To defend China’s maritime rights and interests, the city created Sansha Comprehensive Law Enforcement (SCLE), a maritime law enforcement force, and established a new maritime militia force. Sansha has integrated both forces into its military, law enforcement, and civilian joint defense system. Using these capabilities, local leaders physically assert Sansha’s jurisdiction at the expense of China’s neighbors and coordinate joint operations with the CCG.
  • Sansha’s system of normalized administrative control is currently strongest in the Paracel Islands. Despite the continuing influence of the central bureaucracies, CCG, and PLA, elements of this system also exist in the Spratly Islands and show signs of expanding.

About the Author

Zoe Haver is a Party Watch Initiative Fellow at the Center for Advanced China Research. Her research focuses on the South China Sea disputes and Chinese economic statecraft. She has worked on Chinese security and economic issues at SOS International LLC, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS), the U.S. Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, and the Columbia-Harvard China and the World Program. Zoe received her BA in International Affairs from George Washington University. She lived in China for three years, studied Chinese in both Taiwan and China, and is proficient in Mandarin Chinese.


The author thanks Isaac Kardon and the rest of the China Maritime Studies Institute team for their encouragement and helpful feedback. Moreover, this project would not have possible without generous support from the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS). Finally, the author thanks Devin Thorne for his valuable contributions.

Zoe Haver, Sansha City in China’s South China Sea Strategy: Building a System of Administrative Control, China Maritime Report 12 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, January 2021). COVER

Jeffrey BeckerSecuring China’s Lifelines across the Indian OceanChina Maritime Report 11 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, December 2020).

How is China thinking about protecting sea lines of communication (SLOCs) and maritime chokepoints in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) in times of crisis or conflict? Relying on Chinese policy documents and writings by Chinese security analysts, this report argues that three critical challenges limit the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN’s) ability to project power into the region and defend access to SLOCs and chokepoints, particularly in times of crisis: (1) the PLAN’s relatively modest presence in the region compared to other powers, (2) its limited air defense and anti-submarine warfare capabilities, and (3) its limited logistics and sustainment infrastructure in the region. To address these challenges, Beijing has already undertaken a series of initiatives, including expanding the capabilities of China’s base in Djibouti and leveraging the nation’s extensive commercial shipping fleet to provide logistics support. Evidence suggests that the PRC may also be pursuing other policy options as well, such as increasing the number of advanced PLAN assets deployed to the region and establishing additional overseas military facilities.

Capt. Christopher P. Carlson, USNR (Ret.), PLAN Force Structure Projection Concept: A Methodology for Looking Down RangeChina Maritime Report 10 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, November 2020).

Force structure projections of an adversary’s potential order of battle are an essential input into the strategic planning process. Currently, the majority of predictions regarding China’s future naval buildup are based on a simple extrapolation of the impressive historical ship construction rate and shipyard capacity, without acknowledging that the political and economic situation in China has changed dramatically. Basing force structure projections on total life-cycle costs would be the ideal metric, but there is little hope of getting reliable data out of China. A reasonable substitute in shipbuilding is to look at the construction man-hours, as direct labor accounts for 30-50 percent of a ship’s acquisition cost, depending on the ship type, and is therefore a representative metric of the amount of resources and effort applied to a ship’s construction. The direct labor man-hours to build a Chinese surface combatant can be estimated by linking a ship’s outfit density to historical U.S. information. This analytical model also allows for the inclusion of the mid-life overhaul and modernization for each ship, which is a major capital expense in the out years following initial procurement. For the naval analyst examining the Chinese Navy’s future force structure, the outfit density concept provides a tool to evaluate the degree of national effort when it comes to military shipbuilding.

Roderick Lee and Morgan Clemens, Organizing to Fight in the Far Seas: The Chinese Navy in an Era of Military ReformChina Maritime Report 9 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, October 2020). 

CMSI has just published China Maritime Report No. 9, entitled Organizing to Fight in the Far Seas: The Chinese Navy in an Era of Military Reform. Written by Mr. Roderick Lee and Mr. Morgan Clemens, this report discusses the challenges that PLA reform and PLA Navy (PLAN) strategy intend to resolve, highlights key organizational developments within the PLAN that preceded China’s military reform, and discusses the known facts of command and control of PLAN forces operating in the far seas.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has been laying the organizational groundwork for far seas operations for nearly two decades, developing logistical and command infrastructure to support a “near seas defense and far seas protection” strategy. In the context of such a strategy, the PLAN’s ability to project power into the far seas depends upon its ability to dominate the near seas, effectively constituting a “sword and shield” approach. Along with the rest of the PLA, the PLAN’s peacetime command structure has been brought into line with its wartime command structures, and in terms of near seas defense, those command structures have been streamlined and made joint. By contrast, the command arrangements for far seas operations have not been clearly delineated and no one organ or set of organs has been identified as responsible for them. While this is manageable in the context of China’s current, limited far seas operational presence, any meaningful increase in the size, scope, frequency, and intensity of far seas operations will require further structural reforms at the Central Military Commission and theater command levels in order to lay out clear command responsibilities.

Timothy R. HeathWinning Friends and Influencing People: Naval Diplomacy with Chinese CharacteristicsChina Maritime Report 8 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, September 2020). 

In recent years, Chinese leaders have called on the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) to carry out tasks related to naval diplomacy beyond maritime East Asia, in the “far seas.” Designed to directly support broader strategic and foreign policy objectives, the PLAN participates in a range of overtly political naval diplomatic activities, both ashore and at sea, from senior leader engagements to joint exercises with foreign navies. These activities have involved a catalogue of platforms, from surface combatants to hospital ships, and included Chinese naval personnel of all ranks. To date, these acts of naval diplomacy have been generally peaceful and cooperative in nature, owing primarily to the service’s limited power projection capabilities and China’s focus on more pressing security matters closer to home. However, in the future a more blue-water capable PLAN could serve more overtly coercive functions to defend and advance China’s rapidly growing overseas interests when operating abroad.

Isaac B. KardonConor M. Kennedy, and Peter A. DuttonGwadar: China’s Potential Strategic Strongpoint in PakistanChina Maritime Report 7 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, August 2020).

China Maritime Report No. 7 offers a detailed examination of China’s infrastructure project in the port of Gwadar, Pakistan. Written by Dr. Peter Dutton, Dr. Isaac Kardon, and Mr. Conor Kennedy, this report is the second in a series of studies looking at China’s interest in Indian Ocean ports and its “strategic strongpoints” there (战略支点). People’s Republic of China (PRC) officials, military officers, and civilian analysts use the strategic strongpoint concept to describe certain strategically valuable foreign ports with terminals and commercial zones owned and operated by Chinese firms. Gwadar is an inchoate “strategic strongpoint” in Pakistan that may one day serve as a major platform for China’s economic, diplomatic, and military interactions across the northern Indian Ocean region. As of August 2020, it is not a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) base, but rather an underdeveloped and underutilized commercial multipurpose port built and operated by Chinese companies in service of broader PRC foreign and domestic policy objectives. Foremost among PRC objectives for Gwadar are (1) to enable direct transport between China and the Indian Ocean, and (2) to anchor an effort to stabilize western China by shoring up insecurity on its periphery. To understand these objectives, this case study first analyzes the characteristics and functions of the port, then evaluates plans for hinterland transport infrastructure connecting it to markets and resources. We then examine the linkage between development in Pakistan and security in Xinjiang. Finally, we consider the military potential of the Gwadar site, evaluating why it has not been utilized by the PLA then examining a range of uses that the port complex may provide for Chinese naval operations.

Peter A. DuttonIsaac B. Kardon, and Conor M. KennedyDjibouti: China’s First Overseas Strategic StrongpointChina Maritime Report 6 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, April 2020).

This report analyzes PRC economic and military interests and activities in Djibouti. The small, east African nation is the site of the PLA’s first overseas military base, but also serves as a major commercial hub for Chinese firms—especially in the transport and logistics industry. We explain the synthesis of China’s commercial and strategic goals in Djibouti through detailed examination of the development and operations of commercial ports and related infrastructure. Employing the “Shekou Model” of comprehensive port zone development, Chinese firms have flocked to Djibouti with the intention of transforming it into a gateway to the markets and resources of Africa—especially landlocked Ethiopia—and a transport hub for trade between Europe and Asia. With diplomatic and financial support from Beijing, PRC firms have established a China-friendly business ecosystem and a political environment that proved conducive to the establishment of a permanent military presence. The Gulf of Aden anti-piracy mission that justified the original PLA deployment in the region is now only one of several missions assigned to Chinese armed forces at Djibouti, a contingent that includes marines and special forces. The PLA is broadly responsible for the security of China’s “overseas interests,” for which Djibouti provides essential logistical support. China’s first overseas strategic strongpoint at Djibouti is a secure commercial foothold on the African continent and a military platform for expanding PLA operations in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

Daniel Caldwell, Joseph Freda, and Lyle Goldstein, China’s Dreadnought? The PLA Navy’s Type 055 Cruiser and Its Implications for the Future Maritime Security Environment, China Maritime Report 5 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, February 2020).

China’s naval modernization, a process that has been underway in earnest for three decades, is now hitting its stride. The advent of the Type 055 cruiser firmly places the PLAN among the world’s very top naval services. This study, which draws upon a unique set of Chinese-language writings, offers the first comprehensive look at this new, large surface combatant. It reveals a ship that has a stealthy design, along with a potent and seemingly well-integrated sensor suite. With 112 VLS cells, moreover, China’s new cruiser represents a large magazine capacity increase over legacy surface combatants. Its lethality might also be augmented as new, cutting edge weaponry could later be added to the accommodating design. This vessel, therefore, provides very substantial naval capability to escort Chinese carrier groups, protect Beijing’s long sea lanes, and take Chinese naval diplomacy to an entirely new and daunting level. Even more significant perhaps, the Type 055 will markedly expand the range and firepower of the PLAN and this could substantially impact myriad potential conflict scenarios, from the Indian Ocean to the Korean Peninsula and many in between. This study of Type 055 development, moreover, does yield evidence that Chinese naval strategists are acutely aware of major dilemmas confronting the U.S. Navy surface fleet.

Conor M. Kennedy, Civil Transport in PLA Power Projection, China Maritime Report 4 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, December 2019).

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has ambitious goals for its power projection capabilities. Aside from preparing for the possibility of using force to resolve Beijing’s territorial claims in East Asia, it is also charged with protecting China’s expanding “overseas interests.” These national objectives require the PLA to be able to project significant combat power beyond China’s borders. To meet these needs, the PLA is building organic logistics support capabilities such as large naval auxiliaries and transport aircraft. But it is also turning to civilian enterprises to supply its transportation needs.

Ryan D. Martinson and Peter A. Dutton, China’s Distant-Ocean Survey Activities: Implications for U.S. National Security, China Maritime Report 3 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, November 2018).

Today, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is investing in marine scientific research on a massive scale. This investment supports an oceanographic research agenda that is increasingly global in scope. One key indicator of this trend is the expanding operations of China’s oceanographic research fleet. On any given day, 5-10 Chinese “scientific research vessels” (科学考查船) may be found operating beyond Chinese jurisdictional waters, in strategically-important areas of the Indo-Pacific. Overshadowed by the dramatic growth in China’s naval footprint, their presence largely goes unnoticed. Yet the activities of these ships and the scientists and engineers they embark have major implications for U.S. national security. This report explores some of these implications. It seeks to answer basic questions about the out-of-area—or “distant-ocean” (远洋)—operations of China’s oceanographic research fleet. Who is organizing and conducting these operations? Where are they taking place? What do they entail? What are the national drivers animating investment in these activities?

Ryan D. Martinson, The Arming of China’s Maritime Frontier, China Maritime Report 2 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, June 2017).

China’s expansion in maritime East Asia has relied heavily on non-naval elements of sea power, above all white-hulled constabulary forces. This reflects a strategic decision. Coast guard vessels operating on the basis of routine administration and backed up by a powerful military can achieve many of China’s objectives without risking an armed clash, sullying China’s reputation, or provoking military intervention from outside powers. Among China’s many maritime agencies, two organizations particularly fit this bill: China Marine Surveillance (CMS) and China Fisheries Law Enforcement (FLE). With fleets comprising unarmed or lightly armed cutters crewed by civilian administrators, CMS and FLE could vigorously pursue China’s maritime claims while largely avoiding the costs and dangers associated with classic “gunboat diplomacy.”

Conor M. Kennedy and Andrew S. Erickson, China’s Third Sea Force, The People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia: Tethered to the PLA, China Maritime Report 1 (Newport, RI: Naval War College China Maritime Studies Institute, March 2017).

Amid growing awareness that China’s Maritime Militia acts as a Third Sea Force which has been involved in international sea incidents, it is necessary for decision-makers who may face such contingencies to understand the Maritime Militia’s role in China’s armed forces. Chinese-language open sources reveal a tremendous amount about Maritime Militia activities, both in coordination with and independent of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Using well-documented evidence from the authors’ extensive open source research, this report seeks to clarify the Maritime Militia’s exact identity, organization, and connection to the PLA as a reserve force that plays a parallel and supporting role to the PLA. Despite being a separate component of China’s People’s Armed Forces (PAF), the militia are organized and commanded directly by the PLA’s local military commands. The militia’s status as a separate non-PLA force whose units act as “helpers of the PLA” (解放军的 助手) is further reflected in China’s practice of carrying out “joint military, law enforcement, and civilian [Navy-Maritime Law Enforcement-Maritime Militia] defense” (军警民联防). To more accurately capture the identity of the Maritime Militia, the authors propose referring to these irregular forces as the “People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia” (PAFMM).