The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has had a busy April with circumnavigation missions of Taiwan. The PLA’s jets have breached the island’s airspace and its ships the territorial waters, despite the ongoing pandemic.
Taiwan’s military, meanwhile, has been on guard, responding with interception flybys to warn off intruders from the mainland. The increasing arms build-up on both sides of the Taiwan Strait has swung further in the PLA’s favor, with its navy on a construction spree, launching larger and more formidable vessels.
The PLA last week launched another 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship at a shipyard in Shanghai, the second vessel of its Type 075 class to be put to sea, with a commission into service expected in 2022.
The pair of colossal troop carriers that sport the design of an aircraft carrier dwarf any assets the Taiwanese Navy has in water displacement. A few kilometers away at the same shipyard operated by the China State Shipbuilding Co, Ltd, along an estuary of the Yangtze River, the PLA’s third and likely fourth aircraft carriers with a new flattop design are also rumored to be taking shape.
The Taiwanese military has long been outgunned in the arms race as Beijing ratchets up its drive to modernize its military. But the two new giants that are arguably the largest landing and assault ships of any Asian navies have authorities on the island worried.
In terms of size and tonnage, the Type 075 class is estimated to be larger than the Australian Canberra class and second only to the US Navy’s Wasp class and America class, according to Forbes and the National Interest Magazine.
Observers say the two ships will likely enter service with the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command to act as a spearhead if hostilities break out between the two feuding governments on both sides of the strait.
The new ships will join the East Sea Fleet, whose headquarters are in Ningbo, 500 kilometers northwest of Taipei, a force that will figure prominently in any blockade or even invasion of the self-ruled island.
The two Type 075 ships, designed and built by China’s indigenous talent, will be the linchpin in the PLA’s deployment to ferry troops to establish beachheads on Taiwan’s mainland-facing shore as well as for inroads into Taipei. The helipads on their 237-meter decks mimic aircraft carriers and can catapult and service up to 20 assault and transportation choppers to provide air cover to landing operations and convey additional soldiers.
Other than housing command and control centers, the two ships’ spacious deck-mounted davits and floodable well docks can also carry and disembark landing craft including landing barges and air-cushioned boats.
The PLA Navy also revealed in a post on its social media account that the two vessels would also be fitted with a marine version of the HQ-10 high-precision, infrared-guided anti-air missiles.
At the launch, there was a thinly-veiled message – abandon illusions and fantasies and prepare for a war – from the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command in a post on its WeChat account.
All these developments have caused jitters among Taiwanese commanders and soldiers, who have been battling a Covid-19 outbreak since last week, when a cluster of 40-plus infections among seamen aboard the 20,000-ton supply vessel the Panshih turned the island’s largest warship into a floating virus incubator.
A former admiral also noted on Facebook that the two new Type 075 landing ships would turn out to be more detrimental to the island’s security, more so than the two carriers – the Liaoning and Shandong – already in service with the Chinese Navy.
The Liaoning and its escort ships sailed through waters near Taiwan and Japan and into the South China Sea near Vietnam earlier this month.
However, the first Type 075 ship was engulfed in flames earlier this month, but firefighters quickly doused the fire, and the damage to the ship was unknown.
Wang Tsun-yen, a research fellow with Taiwan’s Institute for National Defense and Security Research, said in an interview that Beijing aimed to convey a message with its blue-water voyages of the Liaoning and the launch of a massive new landing ship.
With most US vessels across Asia docked because of the coronavirus pandemic and several key bases in the region not operating at full capacity, the PLA remained largely unscathed and could field ships to hotspots far afield.
Beijing has never renounced the use of force to reunite Taiwan, insisting that the island is its wayward province and must be brought back into its fold, and the PLA has behaved provocatively over the past few months.
In response to the heightened threat, especially from the new Type 075 ships, the Taiwanese military has since earlier this year been discussing the development of a new medium-range surface-to-surface missile as a deterrent against the PLA’s armada of new vessels.
Taiwan’s Central News Agency reported last week that the Yun Feng missiles, with a range of 1,500-2,000 kilometers and specifically designed against surface vessels and land targets, had been tested earlier this month in southern Taiwan.