Civilian transportation capacity is evolving the capability of the Chinese military forces to invade Taiwan: centered on the evaluation of the US Annual Report

The Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China (hereinafter referred to as the “Annual Report”) submitted by the United States Secretary of Defense to the US Congress in 2022 increased the sense of caution regarding evaluation of the beach-assault capability of the People’s Liberation Army of China (the Chinese military forces) compared to the earlier annual reports. Signs of a change to the evaluation which had previously been stable over several years (the use of terms) first appeared in the 2021 edition, but we can read a major change in the 2022 edition even though the change only consists of a few lines.

In this paper we discuss the recent evolution of China’s amphibious operations capability (amphibious capability) centered on the changes to the fleet formations of the Chinese navy since the 1990s.

The capability of the Chinese military forces to invade Taiwan is increasing

Even after the series of military exercises by the Chinse military forces in July 1995 and March 1996 later known as the third Taiwan crisis, the Clinton administration maintained its policy of engagement with China,[1] while the United States Congress became increasingly interested in the strengthening Chinese military capability. It was the Section 1202 of the United States National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 (October 5, 1999), in which the United States Congress required a report from the Secretary of Defense regarding the grand strategy, security strategy, military strategy, military organization, operational concepts, and projected development of China.[2] The first report based on this Act was the Annual Report on the Military Power of the People’s Republic of China [3] (January 1, 2000), and in 2010 the title of the report was changed to the Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. The report has been submitted every year to the present day.[4]

The annual reports from 2018 to 2021, although with some differences in the wording, all stated that there are always options, for example “The PRC has a range of options for military campaigns against Taiwan, from an air and maritime blockade to a full-scale amphibious invasion to seize and occupy some or all of Taiwan or its offshore islands.”[5] However, the 2022 report changed this part to “The PRC could conduct a range of options for military campaigns against Taiwan, from an air and/or maritime blockade to a full-scale amphibious invasion to seize and occupy some of its offshore islands or all of Taiwan, with varying degrees of feasibility and risks associated”[6] and changed its evaluation to a military invasion of Taiwan being not merely an option for the Chinese military forces but also possible in terms of their capability (underlines added by the author).

The statement concerning the landing capability of the Chinese navy changed from the 2021 edition. The 2018 to 2020 editions were negative about the possibility that landing operations requiring an extensive lift fleet were being planned by the Chinese navy, saying this was “less likely.” They gave as the reason for this the fact that China did not have the large number of landing ship transports and medium landing craft that would be necessary for a large-scale direct beach assault, and was not building them either. Furthermore, it seems that the fact that the Chinese military forces have conducted almost no amphibious exercises at the battalion level or above throughout the year also affected this evaluation.[7]

The 2021 edition of the report changed the possibility of a traditional large-scale direct beach-assault operation requiring extensive lift from “less likely” to “remains aspirational.” Furthermore, following this statement, the report added that it is possible the PLA is confident that it can rapidly enhance the landing capacity which the Chinese military forces are lacking by investing in other operational modalities such as the utilization of rotary-wing assets. The PLA may also have confidence in the PRC’s shipbuilding industry’s massive capacity to produce the necessary ship-to-shore connectors relatively quickly (in the case that they are required by the Chinese military forces).[8] These are statements which were not in the 2020 edition. Moreover, in the 2022 edition the section with the evaluation concerning “the possibility that extensive landing operations were being planned” was deleted and the possibility of using civilian lift vessels to mitigate the shortfalls in transportation capability was added.[9] We should consider that the change to the statement concerning the capability of the Chinese navy is related to the aforementioned evaluation of invasion operations, and it is possible that the United States Department of Defense has increased its sense of caution regarding an invasion of Taiwan by the Chinese military forces.

Have the Chinese military forces changed their techniques in amphibious warfare?

From the 1980s to the 1990s the Chinese navy replaced the landing ships and other vessels it had seized from the Republic of China navy with domestically-built ships. In May 1999, it had 13 tank landing ships (LSTs) consisting of two types, the Yuting class (full-load displacement of 4,800 tons) and Yukan class (4,170 tons), 42 landing ship medium (LSM) ships consisting of three types, including the Yulian class (1,100 tons), and 236 landing craft utilities (LCUs).[10] The United States Department of Defense in 1999 evaluated that the Chinese military forces had sealift sufficient to transport approximately one infantry division but lacked the comprehensive amphibious operations capability such as the seamless long-range transportation support, logistics support, and air support which unavoidably accompanies beach assault operations. Therefore, it considered that an amphibious invasion of Taiwan by China would be a highly risky and most unlikely option for the PLA, chosen only as a last resort to force the total surrender of the island.[11]

The Chinese navy has rapidly enhanced its amphibious capability since the beginning of the 21st century. By 2010, it had added one landing platform dock (LPD) of the Yuzhao class (standard displacement of 19,855 tons), a total of 20 Yuting I class and Yuting II class (full-load displacement of 4,800 tons) tank landing ships enabling rotary-wing aircraft takeoff and landing (LSTHs), two types of landing ship medium (LSM) ships, including ten of the Yunshu class (1,850 tons) and 11 of the Yuhai class (800 tons), and ten landing craft utilities (LCUs) of the Yubei class (800 tons) to its fleet formations.[12]

The 2008 edition of the Annual Report evaluated that even if the Chinese military forces did not have sufficient time to prepare an amphibious invasion they could commence an invasion of islands in the South China Sea such as the Pratas Islands and Taiping Island, and from the 2009 edition the report added the evaluation that invasion of medium-sized islands with a strong defense capacity such as the Kinmen islands and the Matsu Islands was also within the scope of the capability of the Chinese military forces.[13] It seems that the aforementioned rapid enhancement of amphibious capability was the background to this, and the report has consistently continued this evaluation for 13 years up until the 2022 edition.

However, China has not launched a military invasion of the islands or remote islands even now. The Annual Report gives the reason that a military invasion would be a large political risk for the government of China,[14]but Admiral Lee Hsi-min (Ret,), who was Chief of the General Staff of the Taiwanese Armed Forces until June 2019, considers that the remote islands have lost their strategic value for both China and Taiwan. The main reasons for that are as follows. (1) If China launched a military invasion of the remote islands, that would violate international treaties such as the law of armed conflict, so there is a possibility that it would provoke international condemnation and economic sanctions. (2) There is a possibility that it would whip up anti-China sentiment in Taiwan, raising the feeling of caution among countries receiving pressure from China such as Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines. (3) For Taiwan, the ownership of remote islands far away from the main island of Taiwan has no substantial cause-and-effect relationship with the continued existence of Taiwan, so (4) the evolution of time and space is causing the remote islands to lose their strategic value.[15] The evolution of time and space probably refers to the fact that due to the progress of military science and technology, equipment structures have been modernized and as a result the operational space and operational time of the Taiwan Strait become relatively tight with the speeding up and diversification of invasion techniques, and the value for defending the main island of Taiwan which the remote islands on the front line such as the Kinmen islands had is being lost rapidly. Furthermore, as Admiral Lee said, if China were not able to force a political compromise from Taiwan with the seizure of its remote islands, it would only increase the political risks for China, and could also lead to practically mitigating the defense burden of the government of Taiwan.[16]

Considering the above facts, it is probably reasonable to conclude that the physical target of the amphibious capability currently being continued by the Chinese military forces is not occupation of islands or the remote islands of Kinmen and Matsu, but rather direct invasion of the main island of Taiwan. What kinds of techniques and operations will be used for that invasion?

Augmenting landing capability shortfalls through military-civil fusion

Since 2005 the Chinese navy has not built any tank landing ships (LSTs) for directly landing on the coast and bringing ashore soldiers and tanks, etc. The amphibious ships it built by July 2021 were eight landing platform docks (LPDs) of the Yuzhao class and three landing helicopter assault docks (LHDMs) of the Yushen class (standard displacement estimated to be 31,000 tons) (including two which have already been launched; five more are planned) which are estimated to be capable of carrying 30 helicopters.[17]

According to an estimate by the US navy, the Chinese navy will increase its landing platform docks to 14 (seven more than in 2020) and its assault helicopter landing docks to six (six more than in 2020) while reducing its tank landing ships from 30 to 15 by about 2040. Calculated simply, the number of soldiers it will be able to transport in 2040 will be approximately 32,000 soldiers, an increase of approximately 8,000 soldiers compared to 2020.[18]

The Joint Doctrine of the US Military (Joint Publication 3-02) divides amphibious operations into four types: raids, demonstrations, assaults, and withdrawals. The operations used in an invasion of the main island of Taiwan are expected to be assaults, and take the operational form of securing a bridgehead with an initial large-scale projection of military power and then expanding the occupied area through the projection of military power in waves. The capability deemed to be necessary is “logistics support capability” seamlessly linked to “power projection capability.”

Dennis J. Blasko, an expert on Chinese intelligence when he served in the US Army, concluded in his discussion concerning the amphibious force of the Chinese army (April 2022) that the Chinese army possesses most of the technologies necessary for amphibious operations, but there are not enough units suitable for the operations with only six combined arms brigades of approximately 30,000 personnel (7% of the total of 83 combined arms brigades), and it lacks the amphibious lift capacity for the approximately 30,000 personnel and more than 2,400 vehicles of the six amphibious combined arms brigades, so it is only capable of using its own self-propelled landing equipment to launch operations against the Kinmen islands and Matsu Islands, without depending on the navy.[19]

Blasko’s discussion does not reflect the change to the evaluation of the amphibious landing capability in the 2022 edition of the Annual Report, but it is clear that the capability is insufficient for landing needs even with the estimated data for 2040 by the US navy. The Chinese army has greatly augmented its amphibious warfare capability since the reforms in 2017 by newly adding army aviation/airmobile units and special operations brigades, and introducing new equipment such as long-range rockets and missiles,[20] but this kind of large and heavy equipment has to depend on maritime transportation. Therefore, as pointed out in the 2022 edition of the Annual Report, it is highly likely that China will mitigate the lack of landing capability in the navy by utilizing civilian lift vessels (RO-RO ships, etc.) and it can be concluded that civilian transportation capacity is an important element holding the key to the success or failure of the operations.

Therefore, the author wants to consider specific measures for using civilian transportation capacity to make up for the insufficient landing capability. Firstly, the series of discussions by Conor Kennedy of the U.S. Naval War College are a useful reference regarding the supplementation of power projection capability using civilian ships. Kennedy focuses on the fact that, when strengthening assault power projection, the national armed forces do not adopt the approach of building navy tank landing ships but rather augment the hydraulic cylinders and support arms on the stern ramps of civilian RO-RO ships (ferries), so that they can launch and stow amphibious vehicles at sea.[21] Furthermore, the Bohai Ferry Group has expanded its ferry fleet and strengthened its cooperative relationship with Chinese military forces, and in addition has been implementing the national defense requirements in new vessel construction since 2010.[22] The ramp conversion of RO-RO ships is not necessary for normal vehicle transportation to dock at piers or wharfs; it only has the objective of the operation at sea of amphibious combat units in landing operations. Furthermore, the Chinese army is continuing large-scale joint drills using tank landing ships and civilian RO-RO ships and expanding its amphibious capability,[23] so we can infer that the participation of civilian RO-RO fleets in assault operations has already entered the stage of moving toward practical application.[24]

Next, the utilization of container ships and heavy lift vessels for strengthening logistics support capability is possible. According to the analysis of Katsuya Yamamoto (then) at the National Institute for Defense Studies, Chinese experts believe that the strategic projection ability (units) provided for in the National Defense Mobilization Law, etc. is essential for large-scale transportation of the Chinese military forces across the Taiwan Strait, and China is actually strengthening its systems for supplementing the maritime transportation capacity which is lacking in the navy with civilian ships based on the military-civil fusion policy. Moreover, Yamamoto predicts that the number of ships which the Chinese military forces can mobilize and directly utilize will steadily increase going forward.[25]

COSCO Shipping Lines owns a total of more than 360 container ships, most notably including seven massive ships with a length of 400m and width of 60m.[26] Except for a few, those ships are all registered in Hong Kong or China. According to the US Joint Doctrine, the assault follow-on echelon which follows the initial assault echelon has the mission of conveying the equipment and materiel for continuing the assault operations, and the materiel is containerized as much as possible.[27] Containers are optimal for the rapid and efficient sorting, loading and unloading of materiel regardless of the transportation route, and the value of utilizing large container ships is particularly high in the case that the port facilities of the enemy could be captured using raid attacks.

RO-RO ships make a Taiwan emergency more complex

The amphibious capability of the Chinese military forces has entered a new stage due to the strengthening of civilian transportation capacity through military-civil fusion. Although the major challenge of organic collaboration with the cooperating amphibious units remains, the possibility of deployment in the initial stage of assault landing operations has increased for RO-RO ships in particular. Assault landings are literally operations to assault coasts which have been protected in multiple layers, and therefore the RO-RO ships are exercising belligerent rights in the same way as war-ships.

The 1907 Convention Relating to the Conversion of Merchant Ships into War-Ships (Hague Convention VII) stipulates the procedures for converting merchant ships into warships. It stipulates that merchant ships converted into war-ships are to be placed under the direct jurisdiction of the country to which they belong and whose flag they fly (Article 1), must display the special emblems used by the navy of that country (Article 2), must be commanded by a commander stated in the list of commissioned officers (Article 3), and must comply with the laws and customs of war (Article 5), and stipulates that a belligerent who converts a merchant ship into a war-ship must, as soon as possible, announce such conversion in the list of war-ships (Article 6).[28] For example, if China goes to war with another country and mobilizes RO-RO ships to participate in assault landing operations, the RO-RO ships will be exercising the same belligerent rights as war-ships, so they will be obliged to comply with the Convention Relating to the Conversion of Merchant Ships into War-Ships.

However, in the case that China launches a beach assault against Taiwan, it is highly likely that a complex situation will arise. Firstly, the government of China asserts that Taiwan is a part of China and does not recognize it as an independent country, so the government of China will presumably attempt to handle the issue as an internal political issue at all times, including when using military power. Therefore, China has no obligation to act in accordance with this convention, it is not necessary for the RO-RO ships to fly the flag of the Chinese navy, and even after mobilization the civilian captains of the ships can sail their ships without making any changes. As a result of this, the Taiwanese Armed Forces cannot determine from the external appearance of the RO-RO ships whether they are engaged in civilian operations or a military mission, and may fear infringement of the target distinction principle in the laws of naval war as exemplified by the San Remo Manual stipulating the protection of civilians, and there is the possibility that Taiwan would hesitate to attack the RO-RO ships until it was convinced that they were clearly exercising belligerent rights, such as when they launch Assault Amphibious Vehicles (AAVs). Even in the case that the United States and other countries participate in the defense of Taiwan, it does not change the fact that distinguishing between war-ships and merchant ships would be difficult.


The United States Department of Defense increased its sense of caution regarding the amphibious warfare capability of the Chinese military forces from the 2021 edition of the Annual Report. One reason for this is presumably that the Chinese navy has greatly changed its fleet formations for amphibious operations and in addition the Chinese military forces have added the functions necessary for amphibious warfare to its civilian transportation capacity to augment the fleet based on its military and civilian dual-use policy.

On the other hand, there is also the view that the merchant ship fleet of China has not reached the point of obtaining amphibious landing capability or the capability to provide sufficient logistics support in an environment under stress.[29] A large-scale amphibious invasion is one of the most complex and difficult military campaigns, and complex and large-scale joint operations including gaining sea and air supremacy and the implementation of seamless logistics support are necessary, so it is true that such an invasion would be a serious political and military risk for China. However, the Chinese military forces, which can freely utilize resources and time, are changing quickly. It is necessary for the countries which are greatly affected by the Taiwan Strait situation to consider their countermeasures before the amphibious warfare capability of China using its civilian transportation capacity emerges as a reliable threat.



  1. 1 The October 1998 National Security Strategy emphasized the diplomatic result that in October 1997, after the Taiwan Strait crisis, Jiang Zemin visited the United States, the first state visit by the President of China to the United States in thirteen years. Regarding the Taiwan Strait, the report advocated “enhancing stability in the Taiwan Strait through peaceful approaches to cross-Strait issues and encouraging dialogue between Beijing and Taipei.” The White House, A NATIONAL SECURITY STRATEGY FOR A NEW CENTURY, October 1998, pp.43-44.
  2. 2 Sec 1202, S.1059 - National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, 106th Congress (1999-2000), Congress.Gov, October 5, 1999.
  3. 3 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report on The Military Power of The People’s Republic of China, January 2000.
  4. 4 The United States Department of Defense has not linked the fiscal year 2001 report to the Internet, and other websites, such as the Australian Parliamentary Library archives and the site of a US Naval War College researcher, have not posted it either. FDLP Electronic Collection Archive, National Library of Australia, Andrew S. Ericson, “U.S. Department of Defense Annual Reports to Congress on China’s Military Power—2000 to 2021—Download Complete Set + Read Highlights Here”, November 3, 2021.
  5. 5 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, November 2021, p115.
  6. 6 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2022, November 2022, p123.
  7. 7 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2020, August 2020, p117.
  8. 8 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2021, p121.
  9. 9 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2022, p129.
  10. 10 Richard Sharpe, Jane’s Fighting Ships 1999-2000, Jane’s Information Group, May 1999.
  11. 11 The evaluation of the United States Secretary of Defense’s 1999 report to Congress: The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait. Office of the Secretary of Defense, The Security Situation in the Taiwan Strait, February 1999, p16.
  12. 12 Stephan Saunders, Jane’s Fighting Ships 2010-2011, Jane’s Information Group, June 2010.
  13. 13 For example, Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2009, January 2009, p44.
  14. 14 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2008, June 2008, p43.
  15. 15 Lee Hsi-min, Lee Hsi-min Talks about Taiwan’s Chance of Winning: The Asymmetric Strategy of Controlling the Big with the Small, the Overall Defense Concept that All Taiwanese Should Understand, Meizhong Report (April 23, 2023).
  16. 16 Lee, Ibid.
  17. 17 Alex Pape, Janes Fighting Ships 2022-2023, Jane’s Information Group, July 2021.
  18. 18 The landing craft utilities (LCUs) or larger vessels built in the 2000s. This is an estimate made on the assumption that the Yushen class has 1.5 times the personnel carrying capacity of the Yuzhao class.
  19. 19 Blasko, Dennis J., "China Maritime Report No. 20: The PLA Army Landing Force" (2022). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 20, pp.11-12.
  20. 20 Blasko, Ibid., p12.
  21. 21 It is not known when the conversion of the stern ramps began, but Conor Kennedy confirmed the conversion of the stern ramps using a CCTV report from May 14, 2019. Conor Kennedy, “Ramping the Strait: Quick and Dirty Solutions to Boost Landing Lift”, China Brief, The Jamestown Foundation, June 16, 2021.
  22. 22 Conor Kennedy, “RO-RO Ferries and the expansion of the PLA’s Landing ship fleet”, Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC), March 27, 2023.
  23. 23 Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2022, p48.
  24. 24 Kennedy has concluded that the participation of RO-RO ferries in island area landing operations has moved from the theoretical stage and entered the practical stage (Kennedy, “RO-RO Ferries and the expansion of the PLA’s Landing ship fleet”).
  25. 25 Katsuya Yamamoto, “China’s new yet old military-civil fusion: the conversion of civilian transportation capacity into a military force,” CISTEC Journal No.198, March 2022 issue, Center for Information on Security Trade Control, March 25, 2022, pp.83−89.
  26. 26 COSCO Shipping Lines.
  27. 27 Joint Publication 3-02 Landing Operations, January 4, 2019, p I-1.
  28. 28 Convention Relating to the Conversion of Merchant Ships into War-Ships (1907 Hague Convention VII) (Convention No. 7 of 1912)
  29. 29 Dahm, J. Michael, "China Maritime Report No. 16: Chinese Ferry Tales: The PLA's Use of Civilian Shipping in Support of Over-the-Shore Logistics" (2021). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 16.