October 12, 2022

Mind the Gap, Part 2: The Cross-Strait Potential of China’s Civilian Shipping Has Grown

By Tom Shugart

This piece was originally published by War on the Rocks.

The Chang Da Long is a model of civil-military integration. Built in 2012 as a vehicle carrier, the ship has already demonstrated its ability to carry cars in its commercial capacity and tanks when participating in Chinese military exercises. This, presumably, is what its builders meant when they described it as having a “military heart” with a “civilian shell.”

In August 2021, I discussed how China’s civilian roll-on/roll-off car ferries and vehicle carriers could significantly enhance its ability to launch an amphibious assault on Taiwan. Having updated the numbers and looked more closely at how they translate into military potential, I believe the capacity of China’s civilian fleet is considerably greater and more threatening than it appeared at that time.

China’s civilian roll-on/roll-off vessel fleet enhances the immediacy and the complexity of the invasion threat facing Taiwan. Washington should start preparing now to counter it.

With tensions around Taiwan rising and Russia’s attack against Ukraine on everyone’s mind, analysts continue to debate whether China has — or at least thinks it has — the ability to successfully invade Taiwan. As I argued before, civilian ferries represent an underappreciated source of cross-strait sealift. This challenges the comforting assumption that the Chinese military is constrained by a lack of sufficient traditional amphibious assault ships.

In the past year, the size of China’s civilian ferry and vehicle carrier fleets has grown, and my research has identified additional civilian vessels that could be used for an amphibious invasion. Moreover, given how well-suited China’s roll-on/roll-off vessels are to the task of delivering personnel and vehicles across the Taiwan Strait, they could prove more effective militarily than many imagine. As a result, Washington should work with Taipei now to develop the survivable sea denial forces and rules of engagement that would be necessary to interdict an invasion fleet that exploits the full potential of China’s military-civil fusion.

Read the full article from War on the Rocks.

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