China’s Amphibious Power

China has been developing its amphibious capabilities. Is it for a cross-strait invasion or soft power?

By David Axe for

The magnitude 7 earthquake that struck Haiti last January devastated the country's port infrastructure. Piers were cracked and underwater; cranes fell from their posts. Within a day of the quake, airfields began operating, but the bulk of relief supplies—thousands of tonnes worth—had to come via ship.

To re-open Haiti's ruined ports, the US Navy deployed an obscure but vital system called ‘lighterage’: in essence, a mobile port. The Navy loaded the components—floating causeways, motor-driven barges and self-propelled cranes—aboard a military cargo ship, the 1st. Lt. Jack Lummus. Anchored in deep water off Port-au-Prince, the Lummus's crew pieced together the lighterage and used it as a ‘bridge’ to shuttle supplies ashore.

Lighterage isn't just the key to US Navy humanitarian operations—it's also a critical capability for amphibious assaults. No country with a coastline is invulnerable to US attack. As mundane and even boring as it might seem, lighterage helps Washington exert influence all over the world. But the Americans aren't alone in wielding the power of lighterage. China, too, possesses lighterage—part of a rapidly expanding naval arsenal that could one day be used to speed relief supplies to natural-disaster zones…or in support of an invasion of Taiwan. A rare photo of the Chinese lighterage (see left) recently surfaced online.

Just a decade ago, China had only a token amphibious force. Today, the People's Liberation Army Navy has two new, large landing ships of the Type 071 class plus the ‘Ship 866’ hospital vessel all—of them optimized for over-the-beach operations. Lighterage boosts the ships' ability to move supplies onto shore, and retrieve patients for medical treatment.

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Some alarmists would point to these new amphibious capabilities as proof that Beijing intends to attack Taiwan. But the systems are equally useful for disaster relief and humanitarian operations. Indeed, in recent years relations between Beijing and Taipei have steadily warmed, making a cross-strait war appear increasingly less likely. At the same time, China's involvement in overseas peacekeeping, cooperative security, humanitarian and development missions has steadily increased.

Ship 866's first deployment was to Africa for humanitarian work, last year; the Type 071 first sailed on a counter-piracy patrol around the same time. And in any event, however impressive its recent growth, the PLAN's amphibious force is tiny compared with those of the United States, France, Britain, and even Japan.