Foreign naval officers gather for a group photo on the deck of a naval ship before a parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of China's PLA Navy in the sea near Qingdao in eastern China's Shandong province on April 23. Gaining influence through such contacts is one of the things on the leaders' minds as China expands its naval – including amphibious – capabilities. Photo: AFP / Mark Schiefelbein / pool

For years, US military and civilian leaders insisted the Chinese military was nothing to worry about. These days one hears less of that – as news about the PRC’s military buildup just keeps coming.

In late September China launched its largest amphibious ship – the Type 075. It is roughly equivalent in size and capabilities to the USS Wasp – the US Navy’s 40,000-ton amphibious ship. The Type 075 carries 900 Chinese Marines and their equipment and weapons, along with landing craft and amphibious assault vehicles to take them ashore.  There are thirty or so helicopters – and room for adding, someday, the Chinese version of the F35B fighter.

The Chinese ship took only six months to build, from keel-laying to launch. The US takes about three years. Indeed, over the last decade the PRC has been churning out four ships for every new US Navy ship – and two more Type 075’s are reportedly in the works.

China does have a shipbuilding advantage. The penalty for missed deadlines and budget overruns is a trip to the gulag – not angry comments from a few politicians, followed by resigned sighs and more money, which is how US defense contractors are chastized.

The Type 075 is, of course, useful in the event the PLA attacks Taiwan. And Beijing has made it clear it “won’t wait forever” for Taiwan to submit. But the ship is more an incremental addition to Chinese capabilities against Taiwan. The PLA Navy already has enough ships to move forces across the strait, and the Type 075 is a juicy anti-ship missile target in the narrow Taiwan Strait.

‘Influence’ battle

Beyond China grabbing Taiwan or even Japan’s Senkaku Islands, the Type 075 and other amphibious forces’ real usefulness is in the peacetime, “phase zero” influence battle in the Asia-Pacific.

Indeed, getting phase zero right can determine the outcome of a future battle – or even whether there is one.

Towards this end, US amphibious forces have played a key role in America’s regional influencing for decades.

Big-deck amphibs” of the USS Wasp class are the backbone of the combined US Marine/US Navy amphibious task forces making the rounds in Asia – and the Middle East and the Mediterranean and Africa.

Such a unit, known as a Marine Expeditionary Unit / Amphibious Ready Group (MEU/ARG), is typically organized as three amphibious ships (a “big deck” and two smaller amphibious ships) and includes a couple thousand Marines with their weapons and equipment, along with helicopters and fighter planes.

Combining air, sea and ground capabilities, it resembles a Swiss army knife in terms of usefulness – able to go ashore to save lives or to take them, as needed.

The Japan-based MEU/ARG (known as the “31st MEU”) – sometimes augmented by other MEU/ARGs moving through the region enroute to or from the Middle East – has been the mobile front end of the US presence in the Asia/Pacific for many years. It patrols the region:  conducting exercises and joint training with partners, responding to natural disasters and being ready to fight.

Indeed, amphibious forces are a marker of American presence and prowess – and attendant influence.

Not surprisingly, the PRC has long understood the value of amphibious forces beyond seizing Taiwan – and PLA amphibious forces have expanded rapidly over the last decade.

No longer the only show in town

Until now, the American amphibious force has had Asia to itself. No other country had a similar force. But not for much longer.

In fact, the Chinese Navy and Marine Corps could assemble a MEU/ARG today, using available Type 071 amphibious ships and older models. With a Type 075 and a couple smaller Type 071 amphibs the PLA force will look a lot like the American 31st MEU operating out of Japan. And the PRC is unlikely to stop with one MEU/ARG.

So lets look into the future:

In 2023 a Chinese MEU/ARG starts making the rounds in the Asia/Pacific offering joint training with local militaries. That might be an attractive offer for a military looking to get some amphibious practice. And it might be too hard to decline. Do so and your country’s bananas sit on the dock in China owing to “health issues,” or your coal ships are forced to wait offshore indefinitely (racking up fees) before unloading.

Joint training with the Chinese leaves less time to train with the Americans (and the Australians and the Japanese). Eventually, one imagines, US invitations to “engage” with a visiting MEU/ARG will be returned unopened – even by old friends – at China’s behest.

And someday there will be a PLA-sponsored “Asian RIMPAC” – held in Asia for Asians.  So even if the PLA Navy isn’t invited to the “American” RIMPAC, that will be no big deal for Beijing. China will insist Asian nations choose “one or the other.”

And there is influence to be gained from amphibious force humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations.

The PRC’s inept response to regional disasters compared with American efforts – just sending a little money, and maybe a ship long after the hard work was done – until recently elicited snickers. But one knew the Chinese would figure it out.

The PLA Navy is even now sending hospital ships around the region.

Before long, after a major disaster, the Chinese amphibious force will sprint to the scene, do its work and harvest goodwill and political capital.

The end result of all this?  Regional militaries and governments that were once pro-American become less so – or not at all.

No more Mr. Nice Guy

And it’s not just about making friends and helping people. In the case of overseas Chinese in the Asia/Pacific, wait and see what happens the next time a local Chinese population is attacked – say, by Indonesians or South Pacific islanders, who do that periodically.

Beijing has until now been helpless to respond. But once the Chinese MEU/ARG is available, China can pitch up, go ashore and put a stop to the anti-Chinese violence.

The implicit threat behind a Chinese amphibious squadron will be well understood in regional capitals.

One expects eventual “requests” that Chinese police be assigned to assist local cops. And influence extends beyond military and security issues. Cooperation with China on the economic front will be hard to resist, say, when a new Belt and Road Initiative project is under discussion – or when there’s pressure on a government to cough up an overdue payment on an existing Chinese-built highway or port.

Looking on the bright side, the American MEU/ARGs aren’t going anywhere. And with some imagination and effort these can be expanded – to include Australian, Japanese, Singaporean, and South Korean amphibious ships and marines – to form additional and even multinational “MEU/ARGs.”

For starters, why not create a joint Australian-US MEU/ARG, based in Darwin, Australia, for operations throughout Southeast Asia?

And at the end of the day, there’s a big difference between an amphibious force that shows up wanting to be your friend, and one that demands your friendship – or else.

But the US and its key Asian partners had better get to work if they want to keep their friends “rightly influenced.”

It will also be good practice for the day the Chinese MEU/ARGs show up in the Caribbean and Latin America – as they will.

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine Officer and played a role in developing Japan’s new amphibious force.

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