China has commissioned its first Type-075 amphibious assault ship, which is expected to be deployed in the disputed South China Sea, the South China Morning Post reported Monday.
The ship, named the Hainan, was likely to cause particular concern among countries that have ongoing maritime disputes with China – like the Philippines -- due to its offensive capabilities, military observers told the SCMP.
This developed as a former North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) commander said there were four ways a sea war between China and the United States could play out, with Taiwan and the South China Sea – areas both beside the Philippines – as likely flashpoints.
Writing for Bloomberg Opinion, James Stavridis -- a retired US Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University – said China has “slowly, meticulously and cleverly improved every aspect of its naval capabilities.”
The Chinese force has improved enough for Stavridis to call it “now a peer competitor of the US in those waters, and this has real risks.”
He said the four distinct maritime flashpoint zones where the Chinese navy “may potentially take military against the US and its allies, partners and friends” are the Taiwan Strait, Japan and the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and “more distant waters around China’s other neighbors, including Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and India.”
The deployment of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s most advanced amphibious assault ship to the Southern Theatre Command was designed to send a message to China’s neighbors, said Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.
“The ship can perform offensive functions – such as capture of terrestrial features in the disputed Spratlys, and in a Taiwan invasion scenario; or it can also be used for providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in times of peace,” Koh told the Post.
The Hainan, which the Post said may also be deployed in missions around Taiwan, was commissioned on Friday at a ceremony attended by President Xi Jinping at a naval base in Sanya in Hainan province, Chinese state media reported.
The Type 075 is able to carry an estimated 30 helicopters and hundreds of troops and is China’s largest amphibious assault ship with an estimated displacement of about 40,000 tonnes.
In contrast, the Philippine Navy’s flagship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, is considered a Hamilton-class cutter or gunship – much smaller and with a displacement of just 3,250 tonnes. Jimbo Gulle
The Hainan was commissioned along with the Dalian Type 055 destroyer and the Long March-18, a nuclear submarine that could launch the JL-1 and JL-2 gig wave ballistic missiles, the Post reported.
Observers told the SCMP the type 075 could play a more important strategic role in the South China Sea, where China has a number of competing territorial claims with Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military affairs commentator and former PLA instructor, said the ship can carry various types of helicopters, including airborne early warning helicopters.
“The ship is deployed to the South Sea Fleet under the Southern Theatre Command. It does not mean it will only be responsible for the South China Sea,” Song said.
“It will also be used for missions around Taiwan and other cross-theatre command tasks. But presumably it will mainly be for the South China Sea,” he added to the Post.
The US has accused China of militarizing the disputed SCS and has responded by sending warships and planes to the region to conduct what it describes as freedom of navigation operations. Beijing has said these operations have violated its territorial sovereignty and increased the risk of conflict.
Stavridis said that for the US, the paramount value to defend in the South China Sea is freedom of the high seas, adding that Chinese “firmly believe that over time, the US will acquiesce rather than fight.”
“As China plays the long game to consolidate control, it is building artificial islands. These are mostly in areas with promising oil and gas fields in the sea’s southern reaches and around the Spratly Islands, which are themselves disputed between several of the nations. There are seven completed islands, all militarized and some with airfields, but nobody thinks Beijing will stop there,” the former NATO commander said.
According to Stavridis, China and the US also “have well-rehearsed war plans in the event of actual combat across the South China Sea.”
“The US demonstrates its intent though increasing numbers of ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols; China objects, and sometimes sends its own ships in challenge. So far, calmer heads have prevailed, and there have been no major incidents,” he said.
The American admiral, however, said in the Bloomberg article that the highest regional priority for the Chinese military “is ensuring it can exercise sea control and power projection in the waters around Taiwan.”
Stavridis also noted that in recent congressional testimony, Admiral Phil Davidson, head of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command, said that he saw the possibility of Chinese military action on Taiwan “within six years.”
Koh said China’s neighbors may feel the need to respond to the “widening asymmetry” in the military balance of power by upgrading their own armed forces and seeking support from external powers.
“As far as the region is concerned, given uncertainty over China’s strategic intentions and its proclivity to use military coercion, this vessel will more generally be seen with wariness by regional countries especially those which have territorial and sovereignty disputes with China,” he said.
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