April 11, 2005
China's container ship fleet and Taiwan's securityBy Frederick W. Stakelbeck, Jr.
China is busily building a fleet of the largest container ships the world has ever seen. That is a boon for its export trade and economic efficiency. But like the Trojan Horse of ancient Greek civilization, the fleet could potentially be used by China in a spectacular, lightening invasion of Taiwan. Could the hollow hulls and empty decks of Chinese container ships carry infantry and mechanized divisions for a devastating attack on Taiwan, securing the island before the U.S. could respond?
The thought of mammoth Chinese container ships carrying an amphibious invasion force across the Strait of Taiwan is certainly frightening. But the capability for just such an invasion is slowly being put in place.
The Chinese have plans to build several 90,000 ton—plus container ships capable of carrying 8,530—TEUs (Twenty Feet Equivalent Units).* In an agreement announced in November 2004, Chinese shipbuilder Hudong—Zhonghua Shipbuilding (Group) Co., Ltd. announced it will deliver 4—5 of the giant container ships to the China Shipping Group by October 2008. When completed, the new ships will surpass the Republic of Korea's 8,000—TEU as the largest container ships in the world.
Supplementing increased construction and advances in the container ship industry have been developments in China's amphibious capabilities. The People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is building amphibious ships at a breakneck pace. The ships include nine large Yuting 072— II class LSTH; the Yunshu class LSM; a new 64 meter LCU; a number of medium landing ships; and the construction of LSDs and LPDs with flight decks for attack helicopters.
The largest producer of ship containers in the world is also a Chinese company. China International Marine Containers (CIMC) ranks as the world leader in container manufacturing, with over 40 percent of the international container market. These containers can be custom built to specifications with louvered vents and electric power added to make a working, livable environment that is virtually sound—proof. Containers can also be armored and include partitions to conceal individuals or large items.
Entranced by economic opportunity, the Taiwanese are inadvertently making a possible Chinese container ship invasion a reality. In May 2004, ground was broken for construction of the first container center at the Port of Taipei. The new center is expected to save several hundred million dollars in transport costs and make the port an attractive location for investment. Located at the mouth of the Danshuei River in northern Taiwan, the Port of Taipei is one—hundred and thirty—four miles from Fuzhou Harbor in mainland China.
Further improvements to the Port of Taipai's transportation infrastructure are scheduled for completion in 2008 — the same year that the last of the great 90,000 ton container ships will be delivered to the China Shipping Group. Included in these improvements will be the completion of the Bali—Wugu section of an east—west expressway. This will allow for the easy transport of containers from the Port of Taipei via the expressway, or a link with Chiang Kai—shek International Airport via the West Coast Highway, which is currently being widened.
A Chinese invasion of Taiwan has been compared by some to the allied invasion of Normandy and McArthur's landing at Inchon during the Korean War. The D—Day Normandy invasion of 1944 transported 176,000 amphibious troops; used three airborne divisions; 10,000 aircraft, 136 warships, 3,000 landing craft and 2,000 support ships. Available intelligence reports suggest that the Chinese can assemble 15,000 amphibious troops, three airborne divisions, 3,300 aircraft, 60 warships and 300 landing craft for an invasion of Taiwan.
In theory, a covert assault using Chinese container ships is possible. But like the Normandy invasion, most, if not all, of the operational and contingency planning involved in such a large—scale amphibious invasion would have to be precise and error—free. A fleet of container ships would have to unload men and material in an extremely fast, cohesive manner, probably under constant fire from Taiwanese ground, navel and air forces.
Loading docks in the Port of Taipei would need to be cleared for immediate military offloading operations. Major roads leading out of the port would have to be secured by airborne units of the Chinese 43rd, 44th and 45th divisions or advance units of a special operations force (SOF) attached to the invading amphibious force.
Once secured, the port would require continuous patrolling to propel a retaliatory naval or air assault on container ships unloading at the port. Air cover using a combination of attack helicopters and fighters from the decks of ships in port or from airfields secured by Chinese airborne units would be necessary. The imposition of a rigorous naval shield using China's fleet of diesel and nuclear powered submarines would be needed to diminish threats from the United States and its allies.
French Exocet SM—39 anti—ship missiles known as 'carrier killers,' 3M—80 Moskit Sunburn missiles, developed by the Chinese specifically to defeat the U.S. Aegis air—defense system, or cruise missiles launched from Russian—made Su—30 fighters could also be used to attack U.S. assets in the Pacific. Deployed on submarines, fighters, frigates, or mainland China, cruise missiles could inflict considerable damage and innumerable casualties on U.S. Naval Forces in the early hours of a conflict. This would effectively mitigate an overwhelming response from the U.S. and prompt a tactical regrouping of U.S. forces for a coordinated counteroffensive that could take several weeks or months to organize.
A southern Chinese invasion force made up of container ships and Chinese naval support ships could land near the ancient city of Tainan situated on the southwestern coastal plains of Taiwan. As one of the island's largest cities with a population of approximately 700,000 residents, Tainan's transportation system includes a major airport that, if secured by Chinese airborne units, would allow for accelerated troop movements north. The Tainan Airport, a public facility as well as an air base, is well—known to Chinese military strategists. Railway lines and highways leading north to Taipei already exist and are large enough to handle large supply trucks, tanks and armored vehicles.
Adding credibility to the hypothesis of a possible Chinese container—based invasion of Taiwan, the United States itself is now considering using container ships in support of naval operations, and plans to explore the conversion of container ships for military purposes. Working with Maersk Line Ltd., the U.S. Navy is considering its Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) Future Program with a modified S—class commercial container ship. The 1,140 feet long ship is designed to offload cargo for 6,000 troops and maintain a flight deck for the V—22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft. Working with architectural firm Gibbs & Cox and ship conversion company Norshipco, the proposed ship will be outfitted with ramps, a loading platform and stern and bow thrusters. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2007. Hovercrafts would be used to deliver cargo to shore.
China has embarked on a determined mission to surpass both Japan and South Korea as the world's leading shipbuilder. The Chinese can now offer state—of—the—art shipbuilding, repair and conversion services as a result of increased domestic and foreign investment in maritime modernization projects. With improved shipbuilding production methods, modern capital equipment for its shipyards, and significant progress in the areas of ship design, China's shipbuilding industry deserves the attention of the U.S. and its Pacific allies as a possible national security threat.
Would China undertake a container—based invasion of Taiwan? This is an intriguing question which merits our attention as China approaches superpower status.
*The unit TEU (twenty—foot equivalent unit) is used to express the relative number of containers based on the equivalent length of a 20' container. For example, 100 containers of 20' is 100 TEUs, while 100 containers of 40' is 200 TEUs, Export 911, http://www.export911.com/e911/ship/conShip.htm.
Frederick W. Stakelbeck, Jr., is a freelance journalist residing in Philadelphia