Mind the Gap: How China’s Civilian Shipping Could Enable a Taiwan Invasion
Recent months have seen much discussion of the “Davidson Window” — the idea, based on recent commentary by the then-commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Adm. Philip Davidson, that China could take military action against Taiwan in the next six to 10 years. Some within the defense commentariat accused Davidson of “sloppy exaggeration,” that he was “simply wrong as a matter of fact” (though perhaps some critics should consider that a combatant commander may have access to a different set of facts than they do). While others took his warning more seriously, there have been good reasons to question whether China could successfully subjugate Taiwan any time soon. Among these is that China has appeared to lack the amphibious transport capacity necessary to successfully conduct a cross-strait invasion. However, assessments of China’s amphibious sealift capability have typically focused on its navy’s dedicated amphibious assault ships, and have largely discounted the ability of China’s civilian merchant shipping to contribute to an invasion — especially in its initial stages. This approach does not take sufficient account of the emerging and ongoing integration of substantial portions of China’s merchant marine into its cross-strait assault forces. When civilian shipping is included in an assessment of China’s cross-strait sealift capability, Davidson’s warning gains added credibility.
The Sealift Question
Despite many worrying aspects of the degrading cross-Taiwan Strait military balance, the Chinese military does not appear to have enough amphibious assault capacity on its own to successfully invade Taiwan, and hasn’t seemed to make it a high priority to get more. The U.S. Department of Defense’s assessment of China’s amphibious lift capacity stated that the amphibious fleet seemed to be focused on global expeditionary missions rather than “the large number of landing ship transports and medium landing craft” that would be required for a full-scale beach assault. Taiwan’s own Ministry of Defense has largely concurred, indicating that China “lacks the landing vehicles and logistics required to launch an incursion into Taiwan.”
The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission has largely agreed. In its 2020 report on Taiwan, it said, “The [Chinese military’s] most immediate limitation in executing a Taiwan campaign is a shortage of amphibious lift, or ships and aircraft capable of transporting the troops the [Chinese military] needs to successfully subjugate the island.” The report did indicate that China is working to close this gap in “creative ways that may challenge foreign preconceptions of what the [People’s Liberation Army] can and cannot do in an invasion of Taiwan,” but indicated that efforts to use civilian vessels to do so consisted thus far of limited training efforts to support the landing of follow-on forces — that is, after the Chinese military seized a port or constructed temporary wharves to offload civilian ships.
Some observers of Chinese military developments have been somewhat mystified by China’s apparent willingness to live with this limitation in amphibious lift capability. After all, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party seems focused on the idea of eventual unification with Taiwan, peaceful or otherwise, and China hardly lacks the ability to build the necessary ships should it choose to do so. On this question, Lonnie Henley, a retired career intelligence officer and China specialist, testified this year to the U.S.-China commission that among a number of other possibilities, China probably has a goal to be able to invade Taiwan, that it probably set that goal for 2020, and that it has probably met that goal. He indicated, however, that it may not be readily apparent to most external observers that China has built enough landing capacity, as having done so would require “a different concept for how to deliver forces, relying less on military ships and more on civilian vessels.” While Henley declined to delve into the details of such a concept of operations in his testimony, it has become clear in recent months that just such a concept is being practiced by the Chinese military on a regular basis, that it could be used to land first-echelon assault troops on Taiwan, and that it could be employed at a scale that dwarfs the capacity of China’s traditional amphibious assault fleet.
Closing the Gap
The People’s Liberation Army has for years used civilian roll-on/roll-off vehicle carriers and car ferries to transport equipment and personnel for exercises and routine transport. China’s 2016 National Defense Transportation Law formalized and clarified this role and, according to researcher Conor Kennedy of the China Maritime Studies Institute, was “designed to improve the [Chinese military]’s ability to leverage civilian carriers to support strategic projection,” and introduced the concept of “strategic projection support forces” organized from large and medium-sized Chinese companies. Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute addressed the use of ad hoc civilian vessels in his 2017 book, The Chinese Invasion Threat, identifying that a lack of specialization, standardization, and coordination could doom an attempt to use civilian shipping in an invasion.
China’s efforts in recent years seem intended to rectify the sorts of shortcomings Easton identified, through technical standards, peacetime organization, and practice. First, starting even before the defense transportation law went into effect, China issued technical standards for key types of civilian ships that would ensure that they could “serve national defense needs if they are mobilized.” Evidence of the dual-use nature of China’s civilian shipping can be seen in the press announcements of China’s own roll-on/roll-off ferry builders and operators. China’s biggest ferry shipbuilder stated publicly in 2015 that one of its largest roll-on/roll-off ferries was built for dual military and civilian purposes, and one of China’s largest ferry operators has been similarly described as having a dual civil-military development philosophy. In short, many of China’s merchant vessels are seemingly being built with military-supporting features and design characteristics “baked in,” though the details remain vague.
Rather than waiting for a crisis to mobilize and organize its merchant fleets on an ad hoc basis, Chinese leaders have already begun organizing civilian shipping into auxiliary units of the military. As examples, the Bohai Ferry Group, which operates large roll-on/roll-off ferries across the Yellow Sea, is organized into the Eighth Transport Group of the strategic support ship fleet. Hainan Strait Shipping Co., which operates ferries to and from Hainan Island on the South China Sea, is similarly organized as the Ninth Transport Group. CSC RoRo Logistics Co., which operates dozens of specialized vehicle-carrying ships, is organized as the Fifth Transport Group, with a number of its vehicle carriers built to national defense specifications.
Perhaps most importantly, the Chinese military now seems to be regularly practicing the execution of amphibious assaults with civilian shipping integrated into the operations, and in a July 2020 exercise even experimented with launching amphibious assault craft directly from civilian ferries with modified stern ramps, and thus potentially straight toward the beach rather than through port facilities. Employment of civilian roll-on/roll-off ferries appears to have continued in the summer of 2021, in an amphibious assault exercise that I identified as likely involving civilian ferries via observation of automatic identification system broadcasts. China’s Global Times later confirmed that “intensive cross-sea exercises” occurred during that time frame that involved civilian vessels carrying both marine corps and ground force units.
Seriously? A Bunch of Car Ferries?
At this point, a reader could be forgiven for wondering how a few car ferries and vehicle carriers could significantly increase the threat of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. This is where the issue of scale comes to the fore — and if the Chinese maritime sector has anything to offer, sheer scale is front and center. China’s merchant shipbuilding industry is the world’s largest, building more than 23 million gross tons of shipping in 2020 (U.S. yards built a mere 70,000 tons the same year, though they typically average somewhere in the 200,000s). Of note, while gaining control of Hong Kong’s sizable merchant fleet was not a primary driver of China’s subjugation of Hong Kong, it is likely to be a significant result. The powers related to national security in the Hong Kong National Security Law are quite broad, apply to offenses undermining the “unification” of China as well as those “committed on board a vessel or aircraft registered in the [r]egion,” and are explicitly left to the interpretation of China’s National People’s Congress. If that were not enough, Hong Kong’s largest container shipping carrier, Orient Overseas Container Line, was bought in 2018 by COSCO Shipping, a state-owned shipping company that is “widely recognized as the maritime supply arm of the People’s Liberation Army.”
In terms of individual vessel size, most of China’s roll-on/roll-off ferries are substantially larger than the ferries that many readers may have encountered. For a sense of scale, the largest ferries in the Staten Island Ferry system, as well as the largest that ply the routes to Martha’s Vineyard, measure at around 4,500 gross tons. The largest ferries operating anywhere in the United States are the “Jumbo Mark II” class of the Washington State Ferries system, almost three times that size at just under 13,000 tons. For comparison, one of the two ferries that appeared to be involved in China’s recent amphibious assault exercises, the Bo Hai Ma Zhu, is more than two and a half times as large as the Jumbo Mark II ferries. The ferry Huadong Pearl VIII, described above by its shipbuilder as a dual-purpose vessel built partly for military use, is even larger yet, as are many of China’s pure vehicle carriers.
What really matters in terms of the threat of invasion of Taiwan, however, is how much China’s civilian shipping could bolster its assault forces in aggregate. To help gain a sense of this I conducted a survey, using broadcasted identification data, of large oceangoing Chinese-owned roll-on/roll-off ferries and vehicle carriers. The size of ships is often measured in tons. Confusingly, sometimes this refers to the volume of the enclosed space of a ship (gross tons), and sometimes it refers to the weight of the contents a ship can carry (cargo, fuel, passengers, etc., in deadweight tons). Naval vessels are normally measured in displacement tonnes, which refers to the weight of water displaced by a ship when it floats. For the purpose of comparison with the Chinese navy’s fleet of amphibious assault ships, with the assistance of a naval architect I converted the measurements of China’s roll-on/roll-off ferries and vehicle carriers into displacement tonnes.
The result? By my estimate, China’s large roll-on/roll-off ferries total approximately 750,000 displacement tonnes, and its vehicle carriers total about 425,000 tonnes. The combination of this civilian roll-on/roll-off shipping — more than 1.1 million tonnes of potential vehicle and troop transport ships — is more than three times the tonnage of the Chinese navy’s entire fleet of amphibious assault ships (about 370,000). These civilian roll-on/roll-off fleets, essentially all of which could be put at the service of the People’s Liberation Army, are also greater in tonnage than the sum of all of the U.S. Navy’s amphibious assault ships (about 840,000). If available for military use, Hong Kong’s roll-on/roll-off vehicle carriers would add a further 370,000 displacement tonnes to the total, bringing it to nearly 1.5 million tonnes of sealift shipping. This larger total would also be nearly equal to the roughly 1.5 million tonnes of government-owned, civilian-crewed roll-on/roll-off shipping maintained by the U.S. Military Sealift Command — the Defense Department’s primary provider of ocean transportation, responsible for moving and prepositioning cargo and supplies used by U.S. forces and partners worldwide.
Reasons for Skepticism
Some observers are sure to point out that China’s civilian shipping is likely to be vulnerable to attack — essentially defenseless and with limited damage control capabilities. While true, we should remember that even naval amphibious assault ships depend mostly on escorts for their defense. The Chinese navy has been building huge numbers of seemingly world-class cruisers, destroyers, and frigates, and would surely use them — along with land-based aircraft — to put robust anti-air and anti-submarine defenses around an invasion fleet. Regarding damage control capabilities, well-prepared civilian ships may be harder to kill than some may expect. The late Capt. Wayne Hughes estimated in his classic work Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations that, during the Iran-Iraq “Tanker Wars” of the 1980s, of more than 400 merchant ships hit (60 percent of them tankers) only about a quarter were destroyed. Improvements to damage control capabilities would also be just the sort of thing that China’s national defense technical standards would address. China’s ferry companies do in fact claim to have equipped their newer ferries with improved firefighting capabilities, though perhaps some more work in this area remains in order.
Similarly, the fact that China’s civilian roll-on/roll-off ferries and vehicle carriers are not, in fact, specialized amphibious assault vessels may mean that they are not ideally suited for landing assault troops, whether in the first echelon or later. While this is likely true to some extent, the fact remains that China’s ferries are built to efficiently carry the maximum number of people and vehicles possible for a vessel of their size, operating at an efficient speed over moderate areas of open ocean, quickly disembarking their cargo, and returning for more. Additionally, the fact that the majority of China’s ferries normally operate in either the Northern Theater Command or Southern Theater Command areas (across the Yellow Sea or Hainan Strait) could mean that those fleets may be able to, with relatively little warning, convey troop formations from those theaters directly to Taiwan, bolstering the Eastern Theater Command forces that are stationed across the strait — and which are usually of the greatest concern. Certainly, China has built some impressive ferry embarkation facilities in recent years that could seemingly be used to load ground forces quickly and efficiently.
What is to be done? As I recommended in testimony to the U.S.-China Commission earlier this year, Taiwan and the United States should deploy larger numbers of survivable anti-ship weapons, with a focus — given the likelihood that the Chinese maritime militia will provide decoys and concealment for naval units — on smart weapons that are capable of identifying and targeting specific vessels such as China’s dual-use roll-on/roll-off vessels and amphibious assault ships. Also, U.S. military and political leaders need to think carefully through the detailed rules of engagement that will be necessary to ensure that China’s “civilian” vessels are targetable soon enough to prevent them from accomplishing their missions, but only after a point where they are no longer operating in civilian service. Doing this effectively will be a non-trivial process — one that would be much harder in the fog of crisis, or under a Chinese assault on U.S. and allied command and control functions.
Does all of this mean that China has been assembling, in plain sight, a transport fleet sufficient to invade Taiwan successfully? To be sure, the answer to that question remains far from clear. Detailed analysis of the ground forces required for China to decide to invade, as well as whether they could be successfully transported by a military-civil-fused fleet, would be (and should be) an appropriate topic for a well-resourced team of analysts, working at a classified level. What is clear is that the answer to the question, “How many transports does the Chinese military have?” is very probably, “more than you might think.”
Capt. (ret.) Thomas Shugart, U.S. Navy, is a former submarine warfare officer, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and the founder of Archer Strategic Consulting.
Image: Xinhua (Photo by Tang Ke)