As part of its Pacific pivot, the United States has been making substantial increases in its Asia-based forces, including a bolstering of the U.S. Marine Corps amphibious combat capabilities. One hypothetical scenario that the Navy and Marine Corps train for would be a strike against Taiwan and a possible amphibious combined force invasion carried out by China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). A key spearhead of any such action would be the PLA Marines.
The PLA Marines are at present a relatively small amphibious assault force, numbering just two brigades with roughly 6,000 men each. Nevertheless, they are reinforced by naval and air power, amphibious artillery and armor. The PLA Marines are considered an elite special operations force, and theoretically therefore “punch above their weight class.” They are well trained and well equipped, using both the latest Chinese and Russian technology. They are trained for amphibious and airborne assault operations. While they were originally designed to be a much larger mass invasion force, they have quickly evolved into a rapid deployment invasion force specifically tasked for assault operations. Despite this, however, the PLA Marines are still very much a work in progress (as is arguably the PLA Navy in general), and currently lack the full necessary capabilities for a cross-Strait invasion of Taiwan. They are, however, rapidly developing this capability as part of overall Chinese military strategy.
The PLA created its first Marine regiment in April 1953. The regiment was expanded into a Marine division under the East China Navy of the PLA. It was disbanded several years later, when the PLA abandoned plans to liberate Taiwan by force. The Marines were reestablished at the end of the 1970s, and their importance has subsequently grown, together with China’s territorial claims.
This has not passed Washington’s notice. The 2010 Annual Report to Congress Military and Security Developments in the People’s Republic of China notes: “the possibility of a military conflict with Taiwan and U.S. military intervention remain the PLA’s most pressing long-term military concerns. A potential cross Strait conflict will drive China’s military modernization as long as China’s leaders judge that the permanent loss of Taiwan could seriously undermine the regime’s political legitimacy and hold on power.” Three years later, the Annual Report offers more incisive analysis about any potential cross Strait invasion of Taiwan. In terms of an amphibious assault the 2013 version concludes that “amphibious ground forces are conducting joint training exercises that will prepare them for a Taiwan invasion scenario. Training, including amphibious landing training, is often conducted under realistic conditions, including all weather and at night.” The report concludes that the PLA’s amphibious assault and lodgment capabilities will increase with time (this is traditionally the job of a Marine brigade like the PLA Marines). While the PLA Navy’s capabilities have increased, the report points out that they still lack a “massive amphibious (air) lift capacity that a large scale invasion of Taiwan would require.”
The chances that China will mount an invasion of Taiwan remain thankfully remote for now, but the PLA Marines have nonetheless been busy, underscoring their apparent strategic and tactical importance in overall PLA military strategy. For example, as far back as 2001, the PLA Navy staged a large scale amphibious assault exercise that alarmed the Pentagon. The PLA Marines celebrated their 30th anniversary on May 5, 2010 with a large propaganda parade. Most recently, PLA Marine vessels have taken part in the major surveillance exercises being conducted against both Japan and the Philippines in the hotly contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and other territories in the South China Sea. This past September 2013, PLA Marines deployed in the Chinese landing craft, the Jinggangshan, reached the Red Sea en route for the Mediterranean off Syria. In recent years, Chinese PLA Marines have played active roles in both UN peacekeeping missions and multinational anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.
The PLA Marines are thus a small but growing part of the PLA’s overall strategic and tactical planning and operations. They also remain one of the most “operationally ready” PLA units. Their deployment on UN peacekeeping and anti-piracy operations demonstrates their value for Beijing’s diplomatic efforts. With rapid growth and frequent deployment they will soon be a significance force, and one that the U.S. will need to consider in its regional strategy.