PRESIDENT XI JINPING’S attendance at the commissioning of the PLA Navy (PLA-N)’s first Type 075 amphibious assault ship, the Hainan, along with a new destroyer and a submarine that can fire ballistic missiles, is a further sign of the importance Beijing attaches to China’s ability to project power well beyond its shores.
The high-profile ceremony was held at the Yulin Naval Base, home of the PLA-N’s South Sea fleet, on Hainan Island on the 72nd anniversary of the PLAN’s founding. The image above of the three vessels, with the Hainan to the right, is a screenshot from the extensive coverage by state TV.
The Hainan carries helicopters of the size and range that would be used to support landing and on-shore operations. Such helicopter support would be needed in the event of, say, an amphibious invasion of a mountainous shore, such as, for example, the east coast of Taiwan.
The vessel, formally a Yushen-class helicopter landing dock, is similar in size to Japan’s helicopter-bearing ships, so it can probably carry around 28 helicopters. Eight Changhe Z-8CJ transport helicopters were on deck for the commissioning ceremony. One of two sister ships is undergoing sea trials; the other is still being fitted out. A further eight are reportedly on order.
Xi also commissioned into service the PLA-N’s third Type 055 destroyer, the Dalian, reputedly the largest in its class of warships and whose role is to support carrier and expeditionary strike groups and amphibious forces.
The third vessel was a Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine, the Long March 18. It is at least the sixth of these to enter PLA-N service and can carry a dozen ballistic missile with a range of 7,400 km.
The PLA-N’s base in Djibouti has just been expanded to accommodate the new ships. A new pier is also large enough to let the PLA-N’s aircraft carriers dock there.
This capacity will let Beijing project naval power into the Indian Ocean through the deployment of an operational carrier group. Extending that to the Mediterranean and perhaps the Gulf will follow.
That will not be a direct challenge to the US Navy, but the signalling would be clear.
If China signs an agreement with a Pacific island nation for a naval base, it will indicate that Beijing feels confident about facing the US Navy head-on beyond its near-shore waters.
That will probably be some time in the 2030s when the PLA-N is scheduled to have half a dozen carrier groups.
The US Navy currently has eleven carrier groups and unquestioned maritime superiority. However, ships are not the only factor in the equation. Beijing is investing heavily in long-range, precision anti-ship missiles and other anti-access-cum-area denial capabilities in order to change the military maths.