Looking not too far into the future, the PLA will possibly have multiple amphibious task forces organized and structured along the same lines as the USN/USMC ARGs and ESGs, allowing them to deploy throughout East Asia in the way that the Thirty-First Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) currently does. Moreover, it is not unthinkable a PLA ARG/ESG may routinely operate in the Indian Ocean as well—and, for that matter, even in the Mediterranean.
The recent PLAMC force developments constitute a huge change from the last sixty years, when USN/USMC forces were the “only show in town” in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, especially East Asian waters. Consider the potential ramifications of such a Chinese amphibious force maintaining a constant presence in, say, Southeast Asia, Beijing’s erstwhile “southern periphery” that is of such great political, economic and military significance. If one can observe that the Thirty-First MEU only patrols in the region a couple times annually, there is no reason why the PLA cannot have an equivalent force (or two) maintaining an even more regular presence, taking advantage of its geographical proximity.
And one should expect the PLA to use its own brand of ARGs and ESGs for various expeditionary-type operations, such as noncombatant evacuation (a role the PLA demonstrated in Yemen in March–April 2015), humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the region and further afield. In the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in November 2013, the Chinese—though acting partly out of spite to punish Manila—could only belatedly deploy a hospital ship, while watching the Americans and Japanese reap political benefits from humanitarian operations in the Philippines. A PLAMC/PLAN expeditionary amphibious force will allow China to more effectively conduct “disaster diplomacy” in the future.
One must also consider that the next time a local ethnic Chinese populace in Southeast Asia gets roughed up, as has happened before (in Indonesia in the late 1990s, and possibly in Malaysia following a recent racial uproar), the PLA might not just watch from a distance. A Chinese ARG/ESG, primed for overseas “gunboat diplomacy” on short notice, is an intimidating prospect. Therefore, the PLAMC’s recent developments and likely future advances in its expeditionary capabilities mark a significant change in the regional security dynamic. Without forgetting other aspects of the PLAN buildup, such as its vaunted aircraft carrier program, one should not overlook the importance of China’s amphibious forces buildup.
Grant Newsham is senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, based in Tokyo, and a retired US Marine Colonel. He served as the first US Marine Liaison Officer to the Japan Ground Self Defense Force from 2011-2013 and was instrumental in the development of the Japan Self Defense Force’s nascent amphibious capability. He remains active in amphibious development in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Koh Swee Lean Collin is associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. His primary research interest is naval affairs in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/USMC