KEY POINTS

  • Transport for the recent Taiwan drill was provided by a 16,000-tonne civilian ship.
  • Chinese law mandates all transport infrastructure be available for military use.
  • Analysts added that Taiwan’s military too was preparing for that scenario. 

Hinting at its potential to mobilize civilian vessels during the Taiwan invasion, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) put to use a large civilian cargo ferry to transport troops, weapons and supplies during the recent Taiwan drill.

A report by South China Morning Post said the exercise, displayed on state television last week, involved an amphibious brigade from the 73rd Group Army based in Xiamen, Fujian. Transport for the drill was provided by a 16,000-tonne civilian ship.

Over a dozen types of vehicles, including self-propelled howitzers, amphibious armored vehicles and military trucks, were loaded into the  Bohai Pearl ferry ship.

"It’s the first time we’ve used a civilian ship with a displacement of more than 10,000 tonnes,” Wang Hua, an officer with the 73rd Group Army, told the broadcaster. "In the past, we relied on smaller civilian ships of a few thousand tonnes to handle offshore loading of supplies."

According to Chinese state-backed media Global Times, a large-scale amphibious landing operation would require specially designed, military-grade landing ships. But, as the number of such ships remains limited, civilian ferry ships would join the transport.

During a Taiwan invasion, China will need to move as many as two million troops across the rough 100 miles of the Taiwan Strait and land them under fire at the island’s 14 potential invasion beaches or 10 major ports. In such a scenario, PLA almost certainly would use thousands of civilian ships, said a report by Forbes.

To aid in the purpose, China's National Defense Transportation Law of 2017 mandates that all of China’s transport infrastructure, including ships, be available for military use. Key vessels are also being modified to make them better assault ships by adding heavy-duty ramps, the report said. 

Lu Li-Shih, a former instructor at Taiwan’s Naval Academy in Kaohsiung, agrees. According to Lu, the drill hinted that the PLA was conducting preparedness training for an attack on the island.

"[During an invasion,] the PLA would need to take control of all the major cities in Taiwan soon after landing. So civilian cargo ships could become a cover for them to ship in military supplies," Lu told South China Morning Post.

Lu added that Taiwan’s military too was preparing for that scenario. "It’s why you see the defense of the Tamsui River in Taipei has become a regular part of Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang exercises," he told the news outlet. 

The PLA had launched assault drills last weeks at multiple locations near the island of Taiwan, in response to what it called "external interference" and "provocations." Warships and fighter jets, dispatched by the PLA Eastern Theater Command, exercised off the southwest and southeast of Taiwan, practicing joint live-fire assaults, and testing the troops' integrated joint operation capabilities.

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