Can China Copy the U.S. Marine Corps?

A superpower can never have too many elite forces.

Much has been reported about the recent structural reforms undertaken by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—the end goal being a leaner and meaner military force, capable of undertaking a broad spectrum of missions under modern, high-tech conditions. Part of this drive towards a “new-age” PLA has been efforts to modernize the PLA Marine Corps (PLAMC), which notably carried out its latest winter training in the Gobi Desert, in Xinjiang.

Reported by Chinese sources as a combined-arms, live-firing war game involving over ten different PLAMC branches, this exercise featured state-of-the-art equipment, as observed in official photos released by Chinese media. The exercise was designed to enhance the PLAMC’s ability to operate in a real war situation, under day and night conditions. Besides conventional combat maneuvers against “Blue Force” adversaries, the exercise also included counterterrorism training.

To be certain, these PLAMC winter maneuvers are just one of several such training drills conducted under various climatic conditions. One such instance is Exercise Jungle, whose 2015 iteration was staged in the tropical southwestern province of Yunnan. The varied PLAMC training syllabus can be deemed a natural expansion of its capabilities and missions, considering that it is traditionally tasked to undertake operations against Taiwan in particular.

But there is more to it than that. In recent years the PLAMC is not merely maintaining its readiness to mount an amphibious invasion across the Taiwan Strait (or conduct other operations in the context of the East and South China Sea disputes). Rather, it is bulking up in order to give the Chinese political leadership another flexible tool for responding to contingencies not just within China’s immediate East Asian region, but also beyond.


Taking a Leaf from the USMC Playbook?

But one may ask: why the PLAMC instead of special operations forces? To be sure, the PLA possesses a plethora of special operations forces that can perform various difficult, emergency and rapid response missions. However, like the United States military, one can never have quite enough of these small, elite forces. Consider that the U.S. has the Marines, the Eighty-Second Airborne, Delta Force and the SEALS, for example, all of which can be rapidly deployed in response to worldwide contingencies. But their capabilities vary considerably. Akin to a plumber’s tool kit, which contains more than just a few pipe wrenches, it helps to have multiple tools on hand to apply to situations depending on what is required. In particular, amphibious forces give China’s leadership the potential option of landing troops and equipment and conducting operations ashore, both near and far from China.

In order to build a more expeditionary PLAMC, the Chinese appear to study and emulate the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC)—including the latter’s vow to “fight in every clime and place.” Seen in this light, its winter and desert training makes sense. One recalls that during the Cold War in the 1980s, in addition to jungle and desert warfare, one of the USMC's principal missions was in Norway, where a significant amount of training took place in the context of a considerable focus Corps-wide on cold weather missions.

Notably, the future of the PLAMC will no longer be confined to just static defensive and offensive regional roles. One of the most obvious hints of Beijing’s interest in projecting the PLAMC further afield beyond its immediate region appeared back in August 2015, when it staged the first-ever joint amphibious landing exercise with Russia as part of the annual Exercise Joint Sea 2015 (II). This was the first time the PLA shipped armored vehicles and landed troops directly into an overseas exercise area following a long-distance voyage, according to a PLA official. It involved landing more than 100 PLA marines in fourteen ZBD-05 amphibious infantry fighting vehicles—the Chinese equivalent to the USMC’s AAV-7—which were disembarked from the Type-071 landing platform dock Changbaishan more than one kilometer from the beach in Vladivostok. Another twenty-four PLA marines fast-roped by helicopter, whereas a smaller Type-072A landing ship tank Yunwushan disembarked six armored vehicles and twenty-six PLA marines directly onto the beach.

Joint Sea 2015 (II) sets the foundation stone for the PLAMC’s future expeditionary operations. Yet, to accomplish this, large investments in various facets of capacity-building are required. Fortuitously, Beijing can afford the type of military spending it hitherto could not. Since it fits well within the grander PLA vision of mustering integrated fighting forces, the PLAMC is a key beneficiary. Besides ramping up training to hone its doctrine under various climatic conditions, the PLAMC is also reinvigorating its physical ability to project force.


Building “Chinese ARGs and ESGs”?

As part of its study and emulation of the USMC, the PLAMC is bolstering both its mobility and firepower. Both the ZBD-05 and ZBD-2000 amphibious infantry fighting vehicles have already begun serial production, with the ostensible aim of replacing all of the PLAMC’s vintage armor such as the Type-63/63A amphibious light tanks. But most significant has been the gradual enhancement of the PLA Navy’s strategic sealift capabilities in support of the PLAMC’s envisaged expeditionary operations beyond East Asia.