• Type 075 is expected to carry up to 30 helicopters and 900 troops
  • It will be commissioned into service in 2021 or 2022
  • The PLA Navy will soon operate the second-largest fleet of amphibious vessels in the world

China's ambitious plan to add aircraft carriers to its naval fleet has captured the attention of the world, especially its neighbors who are locked in a dispute with the communist country over Beijing's expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea. But Beijing is also rapidly building out other elements of its fast-expanding navy and recently, in a not-so-veiled message on its rising naval might, sent out a fleet of warships led by a newly constructed amphibious assault ship through the disputed waters.

The ship, known as the Type 075 Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), is expected to be commissioned into service by 2021 or 2022. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank in Washington, D.C., said satellite imagery showed the vessel had sailed into the disputed waters near Wuchuan on Nov. 3 and moored at the Yulan Naval Base on Nov. 12.

The initial sea trials for the Type 075 were conducted in the South China Sea off the coast of Shangai in August.

"The Type 075 will become an indispensable and fresh force in China's modern naval warfare, especially for landing missions," the Global Times, a mouthpiece of the Chinese communist party, quoted an unnamed expert as saying.

The powerful amphibious assault, which can carry a fleet of up to 30 attack and transport helicopters and 900 troops, will enable the Chinese military to conduct landings and littoral warfare. The CSIS estimated it to be about 237 meters long and displace between 35,000 and 40,000 tons -- making it smaller than the U.S. Navy's Wasp-class landing helicopter dock amphibious assault ships and America-class ships in the U.S. Navy.

After a week of the Type 075 trials, three Type 071 amphibious LPDs (Landing Platform Docks) made their way to the South China Sea for exercises, the South China Morning Post said. The Type 071 are smaller and less capable compared to the Type 075; they can carry only four helicopters each.

“Unlike amphibious landing docks like the Type 071 which China already operates, the Type 075 can carry many more helicopters, allowing it to launch land assaults from much greater distances from shore and provide greater supporting firepower from the air,” Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst told the Global Times.

The brazen display of Type 075 and the Type 071 in the South China Sea can be seen from two perspectives, suggested Christian Le Miere in the South China Morning Post. “On the one hand, they test and train personnel and equipment, ensuring the greatest readiness for conflict. At the same time, they are also a highly effective form of maritime diplomacy, intended to signal to allies and rivals alike a nation’s intentions, capabilities and resolve. Every aspect of a naval exercise will thus be carefully chosen to ensure the right units and equipment are being trained, while also making sure that the right messages are being sent,” he said.

China's People's Liberation Army Navy can have seven or more of these new powerful ships, according to the Chinese military. Reuters quoted military commentators in a special report in July that "China's shipyards are now building and launching amphibious ships so rapidly" that it can be referred to as "dropping dumplings" into water.

A total of three Type 075 vessels are currently under construction and the Chinese navy will soon have the second-largest fleet of amphibious vessels in the world, the SCMP said.

Chinese navy ships, including the aircraft carrier Liaoning, during military drills in the South China Sea
Representation. File image of Chinese navy ship during military drills in the South China Sea AFP / STR