China's aircraft carrier Liaoning is representative of Chinese expanding armory of expeditionary assets that is both spooking neighbors and challenging American Pacific supremacy on the high seas. Photo: AFP

A vast expanse of the Bohai Sea has been cordoned off for more than 70 days by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is mobilizing equipment and personnel for a series of live-fire drills to train for an amphibious landing on the mainland-facing shore of Taiwan.

The 78,000-square kilometer Bohai Sea, the innermost gulf of the much larger Yellow Sea in northern China, is said to be the ideal natural “firing range” for the PLA to hone and test myriad tactics and war plans for the self-governing Taiwan, seen by Beijing as a renegade province it aims to bring back under mainland control.

There are striking similarities in the distance between the Shandong and Liaoning peninsulas that form the entrance to the Bohai Sea and the width of the Taiwan Strait, as well as the two water bodies’ water flow, depth and hydrogeological features.

The Bohai Sea, a gulf of the Yellow Sea in northern China, will serve as a “firing range” for the Chinese military as the force mounts a massive drill to test its tactics for invading Taiwan.
Assets and personnel from multiple branches of the Chinese military will be pitted against each other in the Bohai Sea, which is known for its many similarities to the Taiwan Strait. Photo: PLA Daily

The two-month-long PLA exercise unfolding there aims to marshal troops from multiple branches to pit them against each other in scenarios ranging from amphibious landing, seizure of islands, establishing invasion beachheads, and anti-air and anti-missile maneuvers.

The opening shot of the drill was fired in waters off Tangshan, a port city in Hebei province that adjoins Tianjin. The stretch of mudflat and shallows there will be the locus of the first stage drill, as indicated in a notice gazetted by China’s maritime authority delineating a “no-go” zone of about 2,000 square kilometers. The order will lapse at the end of July.

The PLA could further ratchet up the scale of the exercise to serve as a warning should the inauguration speech of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, set for May 20, take a more defiant tone from her current obfuscation on whether she will advocate for full independence for the self-governed island.

Tsai has shunned the “one China” doctrine since coming to power in 2016 and Beijing has responded with military intimidation, including by deploying warplanes and vessels on intensifying circumnavigation missions that habitually breach the island’s airspace and territorial waters.

Taiwan’s independence-leaning president Tsai Ing-wen will start her second term on May 20. Photo: CNA

It also remains to be seen if the Chinese navy will deploy its ace assets, including its Type 075 ships, aircraft carrier-like amphibious assault vessels and landing barges tailor-made for invading Taiwan.

The Bohai event will mark the maiden debut of the first two ships of this series after their entry into service.

China’s first carrier, the Liaoning, which has just wrapped up its high-profile voyages via the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea and is currently at its homeport in Qingdao not far away from the Bohai Sea, may also join forces with other warships to parade its might.

Chinese military observer Wang Yunfei argued that Taiwan could just be one part of the repertoire of the massive war-game, which may also include the defense of Beijing in the event of a blitz and missile attack.

He added that the sea-air blockade and mocked assaults on ports and naval bases near Tangshan that could mimic potential future attacks on facilities along Taiwan’s mainland-facing shore should warrant special attention.

Meanwhile, with the PLA strutting its stuff in the north, it does not mean it will be all quiet on Taiwan’s southern front.

The PLA is preparing another beach-landing drill to be staged near the Pratas Islands, aka the Dongsha Islands, a Taiwan-controlled archipelago of atolls and reefs that are scattered along the eastern approaches to the South China Sea.

Japan’s Kyodo News reported earlier this week that a large armada of Chinese warships could be bearing down on the Pratas Islands as soon as July or August.

The group of islets sits halfway from the PLA’s naval and submarine bases on the southern Hainan island to Taiwan as well as the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines, a passage for the PLA to project its force into the western Pacific.

The strategically-located Pratas Islands, aka Dongsha Islands, are controlled by Taiwan.
An aerial view of the Pratas Islands, scattered in the east of the South China Sea. Photo: Handout

The PLA’s Southern Theater Command, a potential frontier force in a war against Taiwan, is said to be dispatching landing ships, air-cushioned boats, shipborne choppers and elite marines close to the Pratas Islands to simulate interception, blockade and an amphibious invasion.

In response, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said contingency plans had been in place to defend its outlying islands in the South China Sea.

A general overseeing an operations and planning office of the Taiwanese military told the Central News Agency that the classified contingency and mobilization plans would not only cover the Pratas but also Taiping Island, also called Itu Aba, one of the largest natural islands in the South China Sea.

He revealed that there was a battalion of well-trained militias and coast guards deployed on the Pratas Islands.

Taiwan has also confirmed that a warship of the United States’ Pacific Fleet had transited through the Taiwan Strait while en route to the South China Sea on May 13.

The ministry did not identify the US vessel but in a Facebook post the Pacific Fleet said the vessel was the 9,200-ton Arleigh Burke-class destroyer McCampbell, which was with the Pentagon’s largest forward-deployed destroyer squadron. Taiwan said this is the sixth US naval ship transit in the Taiwan Strait since this year.

It is believed that the passage of one of the US’s most advanced destroyers carries a message when Beijing aims to exploit the “void” left by the US navy as its operations have been crippled by the Covid-19 pandemic, with most of its flattops deployed in the Pacific docked due to infections among its forces.

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