The Yu Shan is fitted with a pair of missile launchers that are believed to be capable of holding eight indigenous Hsiung Feng II anti-ship or 16 Hai Chien naval surface-to-air missiles. Photo: Taiwan's Office of the President

Taiwan has started sea trials of its first indigenously built Landing Platform Dock (LPD), known as the Yu Shan, with the ship expected to be commissioned this September, Taiwan News reported.

The Yu Shan was constructed by Taiwanese shipbuilder China Shipbuilding Corporation (CSBC) and will be tasked with carrying out amphibious combat operations supporting Taiwan’s outer islands and disaster relief missions. The vessel can also reportedly serve as a floating hospital.

It is also being viewed as an essential step in the Taiwanese government’s national shipbuilding program, with four additional units planned for the Taiwanese Navy, Naval News reported.

According to CSBC, the Yu Shan has a length of 153 meters and a full load displacement of 10,600 tons. The ship can carry AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicles, landing craft, Hummer vehicles, two helicopters, and 673 troops.

It is also armed with six or seven fast artillery pieces, Square Array Rapid Artillery and two Sea Sword missiles for close-range air defense.

The Naval News report said that the Yu Shan will replace Taiwan’s only operational LPD, the Hsu Hai, formerly known as the USS Pensacola, which first entered US service in 1971 and was transferred to Taiwan in 1999.

Once commissioned, the Yu Shan will be deployed to reinforce Taiwan’s frontline islands, support the self-governing island’s claims in the South China Sea and serve as a key asset in Taiwan’s naval diplomacy.

The Yu Shan will also likely be crucial in reinforcing Taiwan’s frontline islands of Kinmen and Matsu in a strategy of deterrence through protraction against a possible Chinese invasion.

The strategy involves acquiring and maintaining the capability to protract a conflict with China, as stated in a study by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment (CSBA), an independent US-based think tank.

The Yu Shan is scheduled to be fully commissioned in September this year. Picture: Twitter

The CSBA study notes that in the event of an invasion Taiwanese forces should be able to conduct a layered island defense aimed at inflicting high casualties against Chinese invaders, theoretically forcing them to withdraw.

In the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, the Communists made several attempts, all in vain, to take these islands, allowing the Nationalists to maintain control over the strategic locations.

Now as then, control of these offshore islands will be a deciding factor in whether China can successfully invade Taiwan, a US Naval War College study noted. The islands, especially Kinmen, which is just three kilometers away from China, represent the frontlines in a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

GlobalSecurity.org mentions that on October 24, 1949, 20,000 Nationalist troops on the island repelled a Communist invasion force of 9,000 out of 100,000 troops based in Xiamen, which the latter thought would be an easy victory.

After the battle, the source notes that Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai Shek stated that without Kinmen, there would be no Taiwan, thereby establishing the island’s strategic significance.

During the Cold War, Kinmen was used as a frontline listening post by the Kuomintang and US Central Intelligence Agency for Chinese military activity and as a base for planning guerilla operations along China’s coast, as stated by the Pulitzer Center.

The island was also heavily fortified during this period, with Taiwan emplacing several World War II 240-mm M1 howitzers in fortified locations, as noted by The National Interest. At present, GlobalSecurity notes that Kinmen hosts Taiwan’s Kinmen Defense Command (KDC), which is Taiwan’s frontline unit against a Chinese invasion.

Matsu is another of Taiwan’s frontline islands that the Yu Shan may reinforce in anticipation of a Chinese invasion. As with Kinmen, Taiwan constructed extensive tunnels and field fortifications on Matsu during the Cold War, with many still in use, The Diplomat noted. The report notes that these defenses provide overlapping arcs of fire against mainland China and neighboring islands, and feature anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns for coastal defense.

Besides those legacy fortifications, Matsu also houses the 1,100-strong Dongyin Area Command equipped with Taiwan’s domestically-made Hsiung Feng II anti-ship missiles and Sky Bow II surface-to-air missiles, as noted by Chieh Chung, a researcher from the National Policy Foundation quoted in Japan Times.

The Yu Shan can also be a key asset in enforcing Taiwan’s claims in the South China Sea, including by ferrying troops and equipment to its controlled features to assert its territorial claims. Taiwan currently controls the South China Sea’s Pratas Island, Itu Aba and Center Cay, with Itu Aba being the maritime area’s largest and among its most strategic islands.  

As Taiwan and China share the same historical and geographical claims in the South China Sea, Taiwan has rejected the July 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) that favored the Philippines and invalidated China’s maritime claims over the area.

In an official statement in response to the ruling, Taiwan reiterated its claim that the South China Sea islands are part of its territory and will take resolute action to defend its territory and maritime rights.

In 2014, Taiwan demonstrated its amphibious warfare capabilities on Itu Aba in response to the fatal shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine Coast Guard the previous year, notes Felix Chang, a senior research fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank.

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen is seen at the launch of two second-hand frigates bought from the US in a file photo. Photo: Handout

The exercise simulated an amphibious assault to retake the island from enemy occupiers, featuring Cheng Kung-class and Lafayette-class frigates, landing craft, 20 assault vehicles and Taiwanese marines, as reported at the time by Taipei Times.

The Yu Shan may also play a key role in Taiwan’s naval diplomacy, including to buy goodwill and recognition from other countries and simultaneously influence their positions in international forums to favor Taiwan’s interests. 

In a paper published in the Issues and Studies peer-reviewed journal, Jessica Marinaccio notes that Taiwan’s naval diplomacy aims to present itself as an actor with its own cultural identity, remind international audiences of Taiwan’s capability for hard power and to increase Taiwan’s visibility to countries that have no official diplomatic ties with the self-governing island.

As the first domestically-made Taiwanese LPD, the Yu Shan may symbolize Taiwan’s identity and interests separate from China and thus may feature prominently in future Taiwanese naval diplomatic overtures.