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China enhancing Taiwan reunification via Ro-Ro ferries

by Adrian David

TAIPEI, 15 APR – China appears to be banking on RO-RO (roll-on/roll-off) ferries in its effort to enhance reunification with Taiwan.

A study by National Taiwan Normal University research scholar Suyash Desai found that China had been building up its arsenal of RO-RO ferries to transport large numbers of vehicles and military personnel.

“This is a sign that China is bolstering its capabilities for an amphibious invasion, although concerns remain over the vessels’ vulnerability in contingency scenarios,” said Desai, who specialises in China’s military and foreign policy.

He cautioned that China’s military had been rapidly modernising, with aims of reunification with Taiwan.

This, he said, had led to an increase in military exercises and live-fire drills across the Taiwan Strait, particularly following former United States House of Representatives speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei in August 2022.

Desai’s research touched on how in recent years, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had created a new normal in the Taiwan Strait, with regular PLA aircraft and vessel intrusions across the median line and in the Taiwanese Air Defence Identification Zone.

He recalled how former US Indo-Pacific Command chief Admiral Philip Davidson had told a 2021 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that China could invade Taiwan in the next six to ten years.

“There have been divided opinions on China’s reunification campaign timeline.

“A 2022 survey conducted by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies highlighted that 4 per cent of the experts surveyed, believe that Beijing has a non-negotiable internal deadline to achieve unification by 2049.

“The same survey also revealed that around 20 per cent believe that Beijing is accelerating its timeline for using force.

“Irrespective of the timeline, there is no denying that for the past ten years, China has engaged in rapid military modernisation with specific goals in mind.

“One of which is reunification with Taiwan,” Desai said.

The PLA Navy (PLAN) has been a major beneficiary of this military modernisation.

Between 2015 and 2020, the PLAN became the numerically largest naval force in the world, with over 340 naval platforms.

“But despite the navy’s numerical superiority, the role of the Chinese civilian shipping industry in a Taiwan reunification campaign is as important as the role of any PLA service.

“These civilian assets would be enablers of a forceful attempt at reunification,” said Desai.

He figured that according to Chinese military documents, a so-called joint firepower campaign involving extensive missile strikes would first be used to neutralise Taiwanese defences.

“Amphibious beach landings would follow.

“But despite being the largest naval force in the world, the PLAN is not ready to undertake beach landing operations.

“Currently, the PLA only has eight Type 071 amphibious transport dock ships, three Type 075 landing helicopter dock ships, around 50 small landing ships, six Zubr-Class amphibious assault hovercraft and 15 Yuyi-Class hovercraft vessels.

“Taiwan has 169,000 active military personnel, backed by 1.66 million reservists.

“Keeping reservists aside and applying the traditional three-to-one ratio of attackers to defenders used in wargames, China would need at least 507,000 soldiers. “By extension, China would need thousands of ships to cross the 106-kilometre-wide Taiwan Strait to conduct landing operations, far from the current PLAN capabilities,” Desai said.

He opined that China had long been working to supplement its military campaign with commercial infrastructure.

“To this end, China has emphasised the construction of RO-RO ships, which can use their power to set up ramps on docks or beaches to transport vehicles.

“It is estimated that each RO-RO ship can carry at least 300 vehicles and about 1500 passengers,” Desai said.

In 2012, the PLA established ‘strategic projection support ship fleets’ in China’s major ship-building companies, through which local shipping companies have actively cooperated with the military to improve maritime ‘strategic delivery’ capabilities.

“Since implementing these laws, China’s shipbuilding industry has prioritised the production of RO-RO ferries.

“While these ships are predominantly used for delivering electric vehicles to various parts of the world, their use by the PLA in military exercises last year, indicates their potential to be an important enabler of China’s reunification campaign,” he said.

Desai found out that RO-RO ships had first participated in PLA military exercises in 2019 with the 15,000-ton ferry Bang Chui Dao in an amphibious assault exercise.

“Since then, the PLA has conducted such military exercises regularly.

“In July 2020, the PLA experimented with launching amphibious assault craft from civilian ferries towards the beach rather than to port facilities, as well as conducted day and night exercises off the coast of Guangdong Province.

“August 2021 was the first time that the PLA used a 10,000-ton-class civilian ferry ship for landing military exercises,” Desai researched.

His studies revealed that in August 2022, after Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, six of these RO-RO ships headed south towards Xiamen – the closest point to Taiwan.

The ships were operated by the Bo Hai Ferry Group Company and affiliated with the PLA Maritime Militia’s 8th Transport Brigade.

Desai further found that last year, the RO-RO ferries were used more frequently in cross-transportation military exercises, most recently in July and September.

According to naval strategist J. Michael Dahm, China had in January last year around 31 RO-RO ferries in operation.

“Scholars have noted that these RO-RO ferries are susceptible to attacks from Taiwanese F-16s, warships and submarines.

“But like PLA amphibious vessels, which are also vulnerable, these ferries would be supported by the PLAN, PLA Air Force and PLA Rocket Force.

“But in the case of a contingency, it remains to be seen if these ferries are able to sail with battle wounds.

“There are also questions surrounding the ability of these ferries to perform beach landings.

“But the PLA has been regularly practising such exercises with RO-RO ferries and only a real campaign can provide a fair assessment,” Desai said.

He added that the PLA also suffered from a lack of operational experience in conducting beach landing campaigns.

“Despite these limitations, the urgency displayed by Chinese shipping companies in the production of these vessels and the use of these vessels by the PLA in amphibious military exercises indicates the importance of the RO-RO vessels for China’s Taiwan contingency in the future,” said Desai. – airtimes.my

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