PRC has long understood the military and ‘influence’ value of amphibious forces—and PLA amphibious forces have expanded rapidly over the last decade.
Just as it is doing in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, the People’s Liberation Army aims to expand its Indian Ocean presence to the point it takes control almost by “osmosis”.
Chinese political warfare and subversion to gain military access is also part of the game. One doesn’t like it, but the PRC has been successful as we’ve seen with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Djibouti.
And within five years there will be another worrisome aspect to the PLA’s Indian Ocean presence.
Specifically, expect to see the Chinese version of the US Navy/Marine Corps, “Marine Expeditionary Unit” (MEU) bouncing from place to place. The American MEU is typically three amphibious ships and a couple of thousand Marines with their weapons, equipment, and aircraft.
The MEU construct has been the mobile front end of the US presence in the Indo-Pacific for many years.
While the Japan-based 31st MEU patrols the Pacific, the Indian Ocean is usually covered by other MEUs transiting the region en route to or from the Middle East.
But there’s more to a MEU than simple combat power. Amphibious forces are a marker of American presence and prowess—and attendant influence.
This has been an American show for decades. Not for much longer.
Last September, China launched its largest amphibious ship—the Type 075. It is roughly equivalent to the USS Wasp—the US Navy’s 40,000-ton amphibious ship and the centrepiece of US MEUs.
The Type 075 carries 900 Chinese Marines and their equipment and weapons, along with landing craft and amphibious assault vehicles to take them ashore. There are thirty or so helicopters—and room for adding, someday, the Chinese version of the F35B fighter.
The Chinese ship took only six months to build—compared to three years for the American ship. Two more Type 075s are reportedly in the works.
Beyond grabbing territory in wartime, the Type 075 and other amphibious forces’ usefulness is in the peacetime, “phase zero” influence battle in the Indo-Pacific. Prime examples being the Philippines and Thailand where the PRC has soundly “backfooted” the Americans and their longstanding ties with each nation.
Indeed, getting phase zero right can determine the outcome of a future battle—or even whether there is one.
Not surprisingly, the PRC has long understood the military and “influence” value of amphibious forces—and PLA amphibious forces have expanded rapidly over the last decade.
In fact, the Chinese could assemble a MEU today, using available Type 071 amphibious ships and older models. With a Type 075 and a couple of smaller Type 071 amphibs the PLA force will look a lot like the American MEU. And the PRC is unlikely to stop with one MEU.
So let’s looks ahead:
In 2025, a Chinese MEU starts making the rounds in the Indian Ocean, offering joint training with local militaries. That might be an attractive offer for a military looking for amphibious practice—or just some attention. And it might be too hard to decline. Do so and your country’s exports to China start running into problems.
Eventually, one imagines, American and Indian invitations to “engage” for training will be returned unopened—even by old friends—at China’s behest.
And there is influence to be gained from amphibious force humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR) operations.
The PRC’s inept response to regional disasters—just sending a little money, and maybe a ship long after the hard work was done—until recently elicited snickers.
But one knew the Chinese would figure it out.
The PLA Navy is even now sending hospital ships around the Indo-Pacific region.
Eventually, after a major disaster, the Chinese amphibious force will sprint to the scene, do its work and harvest goodwill and political capital. This potentially includes an offer to base PLA troops in the country so as to be closer at hand the next time they are needed.
The end result of all this? Regional militaries and governments that were once pro-America or pro-India become less so—or not at all.
NO MORE MR NICE GUY
And it’s not just about making friends. In the case of overseas Chinese in the Indo-Pacific, see what happens the next time a local Chinese population is attacked.
Beijing has until now been helpless to respond. But with a MEU, China can put a stop to the anti-Chinese violence.
The implicit threat behind a Chinese amphibious squadron will be well understood in regional capitals.
And influence extends beyond military and security issues. Cooperation with China on the economic front will be hard to resist.
So if the Chinese amphibious force is coming, what is to be done?
This is an urgent question now that Covid-19 is tearing things up. There will be less money for defence. And amphibious forces will not be a priority. They never are. Even for the Americans.
So here is a suggestion: Organise a multinational MEU using Indian, US, Japanese, and maybe Australian amphibious ships and Marines by whatever name. And base it in India.
Start small—keep it to the “Quad”. But look for opportunities to include other interested nations.
And since China revels in making life difficult for India—both in the Indian Ocean and on its land borders—why not include Taiwan’s capable amphibious force?
Beside the logic of combining stretched resources, this multinational approach has operational benefits—particularly in compelling “joint” capabilities and genuine multinational interoperability.
And the permanent nature of the “Indian Ocean MEU” —especially at the headquarters planning level—creates psychological and even political ties that “one-off” exercises cannot.
Moreover, it adds working-level substance to showy ministerial 2+2 meetings and well publicized logistic support agreements that don’t get used so much.
As important, there is influence to be had from joint training and exercises with regional militaries—and operations (particularly HA/DR) throughout the region.
The Indian Ocean MEU is also a potential test-bed for the US Marine Corps’ new concepts for maritime/amphibious warfare—that call for smaller, mobile detachments operating in littoral areas and using long range precision weapons. This is well suited for the Indian Ocean Region—and for the Indian military.
One anticipates the excuses: “We have an amphibious capability”, or, “the Marines were here in November and we did an exercise.”
But exercises don’t automatically translate into capability. The USMC discovered a few years ago that despite 50 years of joint exercises in the Indo-Pacific there was not a single partner with whom they could do a real-world, short notice amphibious operation.
The main problem: a lack of permanent relationships. The Indian Ocean MEU addresses that problem.
This is just one piece of the puzzle, but it is an important one.
How hard is it? Only as hard as one wants to make it. Admittedly, the US Pentagon is full of people who can give you ten reasons why a good idea is a bad one. One imagines India’s Ministry of Defence is similar —as is Tokyo’s Ichigaya and Canberra’s Department of Defence.
But ignore it and before long we will find China’s Navy and Marines making friends and influencing people at both our expense in the Indian Ocean region.
Col. Grant Newsham (Ret.) is a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies and a retired US Marine officer.