Recently, Chinese state news agencies reported that the government approved guidelines that require Chinese shipbuilders to ensure new civilian vessels if necessary, can be operated by the Peoples Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). This will require changes to the way certain types of civilian ships are built so as to make them suitable for military service. The ships that have the new requirements are of types that would be vital in providing the Chinese military with a substantial sealift capability. Currently, the Chinese navy has limited amphibious capability and its ability to move men and material is restricted due to a lack of suitable transport ships. These new guidelines are aimed at rectifying this problem.

China Set to Expand it Military Sealift Capability

New Guidelines

In approving the new guidelines, the goal of the Chinese is to eventually allow civilian transport ships to be called into PLAN duty if required. The only way to accomplish this is to mandate that certain types of future-build ships be built to PLAN requirements. The guidelines which outline this are contained in the Technical Standards for New Civilian Ships to Implement National Defense Requirements. For the past five years, ship experts from the PLA Nanjing Military Command and members of the Shanghai branch of the China Classification Society (CSS) collaborated to create the new guidelines. The CSS serves as China’s ship certification agency much the same way the American Bureau of Shipping (ABS) does in the U.S. The CSS said of the plan, it “will enable China to convert the considerable potential of its civilian fleet into military strength.”

The CSS has said that the new technical standards apply to five types of commercial ships. These are container, roll-on/roll-off (RORO), multipurpose, bulk carriers, and break-bulk cargo carriers. At the end of 2014, China had about 172,000 civilian ships according to the Ministry of Transport of which 2,600 are capable of ocean transport. The new guidelines though will only apply to ships constructed in the future. The Chinese government has said it will cover the additional costs to shipbuilders for this plan to be fulfilled as the costs of building a vessel to naval standards is higher than to build to civilian standards. This funding will be assured through the new National Defense Transport Law. In addition, the government will provide insurance to owners of ships if they are damaged while in military use.

Cao Weidong, a researcher at the PLA Naval Military Studies Research Institute stated “Modern naval warfare often requires the mobilization and deployment of a large number of ships while the mass production of naval ships in peacetime is not economically sensible…..Therefore, it is a common practice that shipbuilders reserve some military application platforms on their civilian vessels so they can serve the navy in wartime.”

The use of civilian ships to augment naval forces is nothing new. During the 1982 Falklands War, the British Royal Navy requisitioned a large fleet of civilian ships which were needed to support its operations. The U.S. on the other does not necessarily need to requisition civilian ships as it has the Military Sealift Command (MSC) which operates most of the replenishment and transport ships in the navy. Though if needed, the MSC can call on and charter civilian ships to provide additional sealift capability. The MSC greatly expanded its capabilities in the 1990s when a study by the Joint Chiefs of Staffs highlighted the need for greater sealift capability during wartime; this is essentially the same realization that the Chinese had resulting in the new guidelines.

China’s Sealift Capability

Chinese military exercises in late May and early June were conducted in the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Philippines. Beijing denied that the drills were a practice invasion of Taiwan, a notion that few believe.  Regardless the drills did reveal certain deficiencies in the Chinese military, problems that the new guidelines on civilian vessels are meant to address. In these exercises, a civilian 20,000-ton RORO ferry was utilized by the Transportation Department of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). This ship transported personnel and trucks between the Bohai Sea and South China Sea and its use shows that the Chinese have recognized their limited naval sealift ability.

The PLAN is currently expanding its amphibious capability but overall, they lack the ability to move sizeable ground forces by sea. Current Chinese war plans acknowledge this and are taking into account the use of many civilian ships to provide the additional sealift capability necessary to move several divisions of troops and material if needed. The RORO ship used in the most recent exercises would provide Chinese forces with the ability to move wheeled cargo such as trucks, tanks, and APCs and allow them to disembark once the ship reaches a port.

China needs this sealift capability to ensure the success of large future operations. With the numerous disputes in the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands dispute with Japan, and the continuing tensions with Taiwan, there clearly is the need for additional capability to move forces. Because of this, these new guidelines should not be a shock to anyone, more or a realization by the Chinese of their own limitations.