Tag Archives: China

RO-RO Ferries and the Expansion of the PLA’s Landing Ship Fleet

By Conor Kennedy

The role of civilian roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ferries in a PLA invasion of Taiwan deserves its growing notoriety. With port access secured or coupled with developing logistics over the shore capabilities, RO-RO ferries could deliver significant volumes of forces across the Taiwan Strait, offsetting shortfalls in the PLA’s organic sea lift.1 Some analysts have even described mobilized civilian assets like RO-ROs as a “central feature of [the PLA’s] preferred approach” to a cross-strait invasion.2

But the PLA appears intent on assigning RO-RO ferries to another mission: launching amphibious combat forces directly onto beaches from offshore. The PLA has long lacked sufficient landing ships to deliver its full complement of amphibious assault forces, from both army and Navy Marine Corps forces, in the initial assault landing on Taiwan. Rather than building numerous grey-hulled traditional landing ships, the addition of RO-RO ferries into a combined landing ship fleet could quickly close this gap. 

To make this possible, the PLA has been modifying RO-RO ferries with new stern ramps enabling in-water operations to launch and recover amphibious combat vehicles. The first publicly demonstrated use of the new ramps occurred in 2019 during an exercise involving the 15,560-ton RO-RO ferry Bang Chui Dao, owned and operated by COSCO Shipping Ferry Company and a regular vessel supporting military transportation training exercises. Other ferries have received similar modifications, giving the PLA a significant boost in the total volume of amphibious lift the PLA could muster in a cross-strait amphibious landing.3 This expansion in PLA amphibious capabilities has generated very little attention by the international media despite its clear purpose.

July 2020: A PLAN Marine Corps ZBD-05 loading onto the Bang Chui Dao, featuring a temporarily installed stern ramp that uses hydraulic ram assemblies and hinged preventer stays. (Source: CCTV)
PLAN Marine Corps units in floating embarkation and debarkation training aboard a Type-072A Landing Ship Tank of the Southern Theater Navy in June 2022.4

Amphibious warships are optimized for launching and recovering amphibious combat forces, including swimming armor. They feature well decks closer to the waterline, sometimes submersible, making it easier for forces to launch or recover out of the water. The above image depicts a ZBD-05 approaching the LST Wan Yang Shan’s (No. 995) stern gate and illustrates the challenge of RO-RO ferries in conducting amphibious launch and recovery, which feature freight decks much higher above the waterline that are suited to the height of quay walls. Providing ramp strength that can span that distance requires strong hydraulic rams and stays.   

An army ZTD-05 climbing out of the water up onto the Bang Chui Dao’s vehicle deck via its modified stern ramp. (Source: CCTV-Military Report)

COSCO Shipping Ferry Co., Ltd.

The Bang Chui Dao belongs to COSCO Shipping Ferry Co., Ltd., under the state-owned shipping conglomerate COSCO, which operates ten large passenger RO-RO ferries in the Bohai Gulf. COSCO Shipping Ferry has provided service for PLA transportation support for over 25 years.5 It continues to provide its vessels as a “transport group” (海运大队) of the PLA’s strategic projection support shipping fleet (战略投送支援船队), one of many organized within COSCO businesses and other major commercial shippers to support PLA transportation requirements.6

COSCO Shipping Ferry Co. has been developing capabilities for offshore amphibious launch for its ferries over a number of years. In 2016, the company reported having installed a number of new features into four of its ferries, in response to new national defense requirements. The report suggested the Long Xing Dao and the Yong Xing Dao were among the modified vessels, built in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Noted modifications included rapid egress corridors for personnel and some small equipment, measures in compartment design to resist sinking when damaged, and new hydraulically driven systems to enable greater stern ramp extension for moving amphibious armor on and off the vessel at sea.7

The Yong Xing Dao, Long Xing Dao, Hu Lu Dao and the Pu Tuo Dao have each had their stern ramps upgraded within the past couple of years. These ramps likely utilize the same mechanical principle behind that used for the Bang Chui Dao. Structurally, they appear stronger, longer, and are actuated by heavier-duty hydraulic rams. Noticeably, the ramps are flanked by large, multi-hinged steel support arms that act as preventer stays to maintain ramp rigidity when under tension by the hydraulic rams. These are mounted externally as shown below. The Bang Chui Dao’s ramp-mounted hydraulic assemblies had similar preventers but were mounted internally due to the lack of room between the stern ramp and the quarter-stern ramp.  

Yong Xing Dao with new ramp system installed in July 2022.

Some modified ramp systems will not be permanent installations. For example, recent public footage of the Bang Chui Dao indicates the ramp featured in the 2020 PLAN Marine Corps exercise was removed, and the regular commercial service ramp reinstalled. While suited for launching amphibious armor, the modified system clearly reduced the horizontal clearance of the stern ramp and would not be practical for commercial operators that need to accommodate various sizes of vehicles and trucks. Thus, the PLA likely has these systems held in storage to be installed on vessels like the Bang Chui Dao and the Hai Yang Dao, which features the same quarter-stern ramp, when needed.

Observations of vessel activities also indicate additional COSCO ferries have been similarly modified. In two recent reports, Michael J. Dahm found the Hu Lu Dao took part in amphibious landing training exercises in July 2021, and the Chang Shan Dao in July 2022.8 This implies at least seven COSCO passenger RO-RO ferries have the ability to conduct offshore launch of amphibious combat forces.   

Conversions to BH Ferry Group

Ramp conversion practices have matured enough for wider application in other companies. This is evident within the Bohai Ferry Group, a RO-RO shipping company also concentrated in the Bohai Gulf and comprising the Eighth Transport Group.9

Over the last 15 years, Bohai Ferry Group has expanded its fleet and its cooperation with the PLA.10 The company began implementing national defense requirements in new vessel construction when the former Jinan Military Region Military Transportation Department participated in the design of the 36,000-ton class of ferries starting in 2010 with the Bohai Cuizhu. With inputs from regional military units regarding equipment requirements, the new ferries received helicopter pads, reserve medical spaces, improved command and communications equipment, greater freight deck ventilation, improved firefighting systems and other features.11 While some modifications are difficult to observe directly, some of the latest ramp conversions are readily apparent.

At some point in the last two years, Bohai Ferry Group modified the stern ramps on four of its 36,000 gross-ton ferries, the Bohai Mazhu, Bohai Cuizhu, Bohai Jingzhu, and Bohai Zuanzhu. Specifically, large hydraulic assemblies have been installed on the transom flanking the stern ramp. Similar to the Bang Chui Dao’s assembly, heavy-duty hydraulic cylinders will be released from their secured positions and assisted via a smaller hydraulic ram into a set of clevis brackets affixed to the ramp. As designed, this new position allows for further depression of the ramp into the water, and thus the launch of amphibious combat vehicles.

The Bohai Mazhu in 2017 prior to conversion.
The Bohai Mazhu with new hydraulic assemblies installed in 2022.
A closer view of the Bohai Zuanzhu’s new system.12

These new systems are also operational in recent PLA amphibious exercises, deploying and recovering amphibious forces from offshore, as documented by Dahm. Participation of all four of the 36,000 gross ton class, as well as the 24,777 gross ton multi-purpose ferry Bohai Hengtong was observed in late summer exercises of 2021 and 2022.13 The Bohai Hengtong’s stern ramp is likely long enough for amphibious launch, but may require additional ramp-mounted support due to the presence of the vessel’s quarter-stern ramp. The specific ramp modification for this vessel or its sister ship the Bo Hai Heng Da is unclear.


These modifications to civilian RO-RO ferry ramps have the potential to significantly augment the PLA’s access to amphibious lift. The ferries previously identified contain the following lane in meter (LIM) dimensions and deadweight tonnage (DWT – i.e., a ship’s total carrying capacity) which can help analysts determine the total volume of amphibious combat forces they can add to the PLAN’s organic amphibious lift.

RO-RO Ferries Likely Capable of Offshore Amphibious Launch/Recovery (as of February 2, 2023)

Vessel Name Conversion Method DWT LIM
Bohai Cuizhu (渤海翠珠) Permanent external installation 7,587 2,500
Bohai Jingzhu (渤海晶珠) Permanent external installation 7,598 2,500
Bohai Mazhu (渤海玛珠) Permanent external installation 7,503 2,500
Bohai Zuanzhu (渤海钻珠) Permanent external installation 7,481 2,500
Bohai Hengtong (渤海恒通) Unknown 11,288 2,700
Yong Xing Dao (永兴岛) Permanent installation 7,662 2000
Long Xing Dao (龙兴岛) Permanent installation 7,743 2000
Chang Shan Dao (长山岛) Likely permanent installation 7,670 2000
Pu Tuo Dao (普陀岛) Permanent installation 3,996 835
Hu Lu Dao (葫芦岛) Permanent installation 3,873 835
Bang Chui Dao (棒棰岛) Requires internally-mounted system 3,547 835
Hai Yang Dao (海洋岛) Requires internally-mounted system 3,547 835
TOTAL   79,495 22,040

Note: Most of the modified vessels included in this table have been visually confirmed through openly available imagery and video sources online.

While simply dividing each vessel’s deadweight tonnage by vehicle weights can yield hundreds of vehicles per vessel, the impressive advertised carrying capacities of these ships do not translate directly into the volume of PLA forces they can transport. Crew, passengers, fresh water, fuel, and other various cargo will take up some of the deadweight tonnage listed above, and the remainder will be portioned out to vehicles, as permitted by the total vehicle lane space. Other basic characteristics such as the spacing of vehicle tie down anchor points in vessel decks will also be important factors in determining capacity.     

Internal spatial dimensions and freight deck strength will better determine what kind of vehicle and how many can load. PLA transportation experts find that most of China’s RO-RO passenger ferries feature 3.1-meter wide vehicle lanes, which do not satisfy the width requirements for large numbers of tracked armored vehicles. In addition to not optimizing occupied deck space, improper positioning of heavy loads outside of vehicle lanes could also result in damage to freight decks. Additional internal clearance constraints along ramps and elevators will also limit what types of vehicles and cargo are stowed on each deck, likely only permitting the heaviest armored vehicles, such as main battle tanks, on the main freight decks.14 For example, the four 36,000-gross ton Bohai Ferry Group ferries each have 2,500 total LIM. Despite this impressive volume, PLA experts have noted limitations in their ability to carry large, armored vehicles.

The Bohai Mazhu, the last of the four to enter operation in April 2015, has internal ramp widths of 3.5m and elevator widths of 3m, limiting heavy tanks to only the main freight deck.15 It is likely the Bohai Mazhu’s preceding sister ships also feature the same limiting dimensions. These issues impact transport of the PLA’s heaviest equipment but could also limit their ability to transport amphibious combat vehicles such as the Type-05 series of vehicles. Boat-like in its hull design, a ZBD-05 has a reported width of 3.36 meters and length of 9.5 meters, which could cause difficulty in making turns and accessing upper or lower decks.16 Other vessels may be more accommodating. For example, the Chang Shan Dao reportedly has a 3.6 m-wide elevator and 3.5 m-wide internal ramps, as may its sister ships, the Yong Xing Dao and Long Xing Dao.17

More importantly, while total loading capacities may be useful for gauging how the PLA might optimize its loading plans for relatively secure terminal to terminal delivery operations, offshore amphibious launch entails very different considerations. The stowage of amphibious combat forces will likely be done according to combat loading plans that do not emphasize the maximization of forces occupying deck space. Instead, forces would load according to their assigned assault waves, which likely include both armor and infantry aboard assault craft, and other support elements. Each wave must be positioned and readied to access and launch from the vessel’s stern ramp.

Moreover, launching amphibious combat forces brings vessels closer to active combat areas. The threat of adversary attacks could lead the PLA to disperse forces across many ships. Multiple units confined to a single ferry could be a vulnerability demanding more protection of that single vessel. It is likely that ferries participating in this mission will not be loaded to the brim. As pure transporters, they may seek to launch forces as quickly as possible to reduce their own exposure and swiftly return to ports of embarkation to load follow-on forces.

Despite this, these vessels offer a significant additional source of amphibious lift for the PLA, especially for delivery of first echelon amphibious combat forces critical to securing areas for landing the follow-on invasion force. With the previously-mentioned spatial limitations in mind, a conservative estimate of the total capacity of the ships identified in this article adds on capacity sufficient for half the PLA army’s primary amphibious combat forces (12 amphibious combined arms battalions).18 This places one battalion on each vessel, with room for additional supporting elements from their respective brigades. Depending on internal space constraints, vessels like the Pu Tuo Dao could probably deliver a single battalion, while some of the larger vessels could likely carry up to two battalions if the PLA accepts the risk. Having fewer forces embarked would also make it easier for these vessels to support forces loaded well in advance of an invasion, as many ferries market to tourists their berthing compartments complete with toilets and showers, and feature mess halls and recreational facilities. Spare vehicle deck space could also be employed to support embarked amphibious units. If done right, such early loading could relieve pressure on PLA loading operations, but also make detecting a force build up more difficult.     


The PLA has rapidly expanded its landing ship fleet over the last few years. It has not taken the form many may have expected, such as the construction of numerous naval landing ships, instead focusing efforts on civilian RO-RO ferries to fulfill the PLA’s requirements. This article set out to identify the PRC-flagged RO-RO ferries with ramps that can enable offshore amphibious launch. It has likely failed to enumerate all the various ramp configurations and identify all the vessels involved.

Both COSCO Shipping Ferry Group and Bohai Ferry Group have ferries capable of supporting this mission. Some ramp systems are temporary, suggesting preparations for some ferries to rapidly refit when needed, while others are permanent observable installations. The ferries themselves are dual-commercial and military use ships, however, their ramp modifications have a sole purpose, the offshore launch of amphibious combat forces in a landing operation against Taiwan. Furthermore, these capabilities are not simply theoretical, as some of these ships take part in landing exercises with PLA amphibious ground units.  

The PRC appears to have significantly expanded its amphibious lift capacity with little notice from the international community, much less criticism. While many PLA experts write openly on the important roles of the commercial RO-RO fleet in a cross-Strait invasion, specifically their roles in transporting large volumes of heavy follow-on forces, they have generally steered clear of discussing their role in offshore amphibious launch. If these RO-RO modifications and their application in military exercises are observable by a foreign audience, they should be readily known by PLA military transportation professionals. This supports the author’s original assertion in 2021 that this expansion in capacity could occur quickly and quietly.

There are still many more questions to be answered regarding the effectiveness of this approach. The PLA must tackle coordination between the joint forces, including organic landing ships and civilian assets. There are organizational, command and control, communications, security, and numerous other issues to solve before RO-RO ferries can effectively support a joint island landing campaign, especially if they are to join in delivering landing assault waves. Nonetheless, an initial understanding of the scale of this approach is important for gauging the significance of its contribution toward delivering the PLA’s joint landing forces.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute in Rhode Island.

The analyses and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. Naval War College.


1. For an analysis of a PLA invasion against port locations, see: Ian Easton, Hostile Harbors: Taiwan’s Ports and PLA Invasion Plans,” Project 2049 Institute, July 22, 2021, https://project2049.net/2021/07/22/hostile-harbors-taiwans-ports-and-pla-invasion-plans/; For an analysis of PLA logistics over the shore capabilities, see: Dahm, J. Michael, “China Maritime Report No. 16: Chinese Ferry Tales: The PLA’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Support of Over-the-Shore Logistics” (2021). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 16. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cmsi-maritime-reports/16; and “China Maritime Report No. 25: More Chinese Ferry Tales: China’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Military Activities, 2021-2022” (2023). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 25. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cmsi-maritime-reports/25.

2. Henley, Lonnie D., “China Maritime Report No. 21: Civilian Shipping and Maritime Militia: The Logistics Backbone of a Taiwan Invasion” (2022). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 21. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cmsi-maritime-reports/21.

3. Conor Kennedy, “Ramping the Strait: Quick and Dirty Solutions to Boost Amphibious Lift,” China Brief, Volume 21, Issue: 14, https://jamestown.org/program/ramping-the-strait-quick-and-dirty-solutions-to-boost-amphibious-lift/.

4. 严家罗, 周紫春, 周启青 [Yan Jialuo, Zhou Zichun, Zhou Qiqing], 海军陆战队某旅海上浮渡装卸载训练 [“A Navy Marine Corps Brigade in Afloat Loading and Unloading Exercises”], 当代海军 [Navy Today], No. 7, 2015, p. 31.

5. 潘诚, 王正旭 [Pan Cheng, Wang Zhengxu], 沈阳联勤保障中心某航务军代处与企业共同制定军运细则 [“A Shenyang Joint Logistics Support Center Navigational Military Representative Office Jointly Formulates Military Transportation Rules with an Enterprise”], 中国国防报 [China Defence News], June 15, 2017, p. 3, http://www.81.cn/gfbmap/content/21/2017-06/15/03/2017061503_pdf.pdf.

6. Conor M. Kennedy, “China Maritime Report No. 4: Civil Transport in PLA Power Projection” (2019). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 4. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cmsi-maritime-reports/4.

7. 王正旭, 高勇, 贾文暄 [Wang Zhengxu, Gao Yong, Jia Wenxuan], 客轮首尾开门运兵运超重军事装备 可起降直升机 [“Passenger Ships Carry Troops and Overweight Military Equipment, and Can Land Helicopters”], 中国国防报 [China Defence News], September 29, 2016, https://www.chinanews.com.cn/mil/2016/09-29/8018481.shtml.

8. Dahm, J. Michael, “China Maritime Report No. 16: Chinese Ferry Tales: The PLA’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Support of Over-the-Shore Logistics” (2021). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 16. pp. 33-38,
https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cmsi-maritime-reports/16; Dahm, J. Michael, “China Maritime Report No. 25: More Chinese Ferry Tales: China’s Use of Civilian Shipping in Military Activities, 2021-2022” (2023). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 25. Pp. 34-36,

9. 李远星, 王丙 [Li Yuanxing, Wang Bing], 新时代战略投送支援力量建设运用研究 [“Research on Construction and Use of Strategic Projection Support Forces in the New Era”], 国防 [National Defense], No. 12 (2017), 20–23.

10. Since 2006, Bohai Ferry Group has constructed over 16 large RO-RO ferries ranging from 20,000 to 45,000 gross tons. See: 关于我们 [“About Us”], 渤海轮渡集团股份有限公司 [Bohai Ferry Group Co., Ltd.], Undated, http://www.bhferry.com/brief.html

11. 李响 [Li Xiang], 军民融合领域的一次成功实践: “渤海翠珠” 滚装船提升我军海上战略投送能力纪实 [“Record of a Successful Practice in Civil-Military Fusion: the RO-RO Ship ‘Bohai Cuizhu’ Enhances Our Military’s Maritime Strategic Projection Capabilities”], 国防科技工业 [National Defense Science and Technology Industry], No. 1 (2012), 53.

12. 建设打仗后勤 [“Building Warfighting Logistics”], CCTV –《追光》[CCTV- Chasing the Light], Episode 11, October 9, 2022, https://tv.cctv.com/2022/10/09/VIDErLF38LiQWiL4DD2eu0UM221009.shtml?spm=C55953877151.PmHVnEZCnjLh.0.0

13. Dahm, “China Maritime Report No. 16,” pp. 33-39; Dahm, “China Maritime Report No. 25,” pp. 36-44; For an image depicting the Bo Hai Heng Tong launching vehicles, see: H I Sutton and Sam LaGrone, “Chinese Launch Assault Craft from Civilian Car Ferries in Mass Amphibious Invasion Drill, Satellite Photos Show,” USNI News, September 28, 2022, https://news.usni.org/2022/09/28/chinese-launch-assault-craft-from-civilian-car-ferries-in-mass-amphibious-invasion-drill-satellite-photos-show

14. 孙琪, 刘宝新 [Sun Qi, Liu Baoxin], 民用客滚船军事应用研究 [“Research on Military Application of Civil Ro-Ro Passenger Ships”], 军事交通学报 [Journal of Military Transportation], No. 2, 2022, p. 26.

15. Ibid.

16. “ZBD-05 or VN-18,” Army Recognition, July 9, 2021, https://www.armyrecognition.com/china_chinese_light_armored_armoured_vehicle_uk/zbd-05_zbd05_zbd2000_amphibious_armoured_infantry_fighting_vehicle_data_sheet_specifications.html;

17. 吴克南 [Wu Kenan], 我国滚装船运输军事重装备的适用性研究 [“The Applicability Research of China Ro-Ro Ship Used to Transport Military Heavy Equipment”], 大连海事大学-硕士学位论文 [Dalian Maritime University – Master’s Thesis], March 2016, p.

18. This is based on the estimated size of an army amphibious combined arms battalion consisting of 80 vehicles and 500-600 troops. See: Blasko, Dennis J., “China Maritime Report No. 20: The PLA Army Amphibious Force” (2022). CMSI China Maritime Reports. 20, pp. 3-4. https://digital-commons.usnwc.edu/cmsi-maritime-reports/20.

Featured Image: A CCTV report showed a cargo ship that was being used to carry troops, weapons and supplies in a recent PLA exercise. (Photo via CCTV)

Leaning on the Big Switch in the Pacific: Why The United States Dominates Pacific Telecom Infrastructure

By Geoffrey L. Irving


A combination of the United States’ nascent modern industrial policy, diplomacy, and aligned governmental and commercial interests have set the conditions for it to pull ahead in the race to control vital telecommunications infrastructure in the Pacific. The race to control telecommunications infrastructure is founded upon a number of small island nations and territories in the Pacific Ocean that last saw global attention during the island-hopping campaigns of the Second World War. This analysis will give particular focus to the nations and territories of Guam and the Solomon Islands and the effect that they have on subsea telecommunications infrastructure. Further, this analysis will review how competing American and Chinese telecommunication infrastructure strategies are affecting these Pacific Island nations and territories and how the convergence of the United States’ regulatory regimes, including “Team Telecom,” and commercial interests are dominating Pacific telecommunications.

The People’s Republic of China’s (hereinafter referred to as “China”) return to great power status is well-covered in national security circles and beyond. From construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea, to continued saber rattling directed at Taiwanese unification, to the infiltration of Chinese technology into the United States’ supply chains and defense industrial base, media and academic coverage of China’s return to global power often include dire warnings that the United States is unknowingly falling behind. However, there is one sector of Sino-American competition that currently bodes well for the United States and its allies, and deserves additional recognition and analysis; namely, the race to control international telecommunications infrastructure, and specifically the subsea fiber-optic cables that serve as the backbone of modern communication. 

Subsea communications infrastructure is the backbone of the modern way of life. More than 95 percent of international internet traffic flows across subsea fiber-optic cables.1 This data traffic includes all types of communications, from consumer phone calls, to streaming entertainment, financial transactions, or secure military or intelligence messaging.2 While high-profile satellite communications like those provided by SpaceX’s Starlink low earth orbit technology receive a lot publicity for their deployment in austere conditions, satellite data capabilities do not come close to matching the data capacity of fiber-optic cables.3

The concept of a subsea cable is relatively simple. Since the first subsea copper telegram cable was laid by the Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1858 between the North America and Ireland, cable technology has progressively matured with advances in materials science and information technology, although the operational concept has remained the same.4 A physical cable is spooled into the hull of a massive ship designed specifically for the task of laying and maintaining subsea cables.5 The ship then steams from one landing site across a body of water to another, laying cables and signal amplification units along the way. The cable, with its periodic amplifiers, sinks to the seafloor where it rests on top of seabed topography and uses relative obscurity and layers of armored sheathing to protect the delicate strands of glass fibers that carry light waves across thousands of miles.6 A tremendous level of complexity is required to execute this task; however, this simple explanation is meant to provide a basic understanding of the operations behind a subsea fiber-optic cable.

As the largest body of water in the world by far, the Pacific Ocean poses a particular challenge when laying subsea cables. Before the first Pacific subsea cable existed, reaching East Asia by electronic communication required either unreliable radio repeaters subject to the vagaries of weather and atmospheric conditions, or through a cable route that travelled across the Atlantic, through Cape Town, South Africa or Russia to a connecting cable to Japan or India.7 However, since the first Pacific cable was laid in 1903, cables across the Pacific have proliferated and now serve as the primary means to connect isolated Pacific Island Nations to the rest of the world.8 Additionally, in a bi-polar geopolitical environment internet connectivity and infrastructure is a key tool in drawing these nations towards alignment with the United States or China.9

Cable infrastructure is such an important piece of the geopolitical chessboard because its ownership and control can influence global data traffic and the contents of that traffic. Of particular note, as an overwhelming majority of financial transactions are negotiated, administered, and settled via electronic communications, if a party controls communications infrastructure, it can control the financial dealings of any client who relies on that infrastructure.10 For small Pacific Islands Countries, having a single cable connecting an island to the world wide web creates a single point of failure that can have extremely dire consequences if there is an unanticipated fault or break in the line – as there often are in subsea infrastructure.11 For example, in January 2022, an underwater volcanic eruption and landslide severed the only subsea cable connecting the island nation of Tonga to the outside world. As a result, it was nearly impossible to contact the island for a number of weeks.12 

China’s return to superpower status on the global stage has been accompanied by its audacious Belt and Road Initiative.13 This program funded massive infrastructure programs around the developing world to expand China’s diplomatic reach and to erode the international institutions of the post-Second World War international order. As a subset of the Belt and Road Initiative, China specifically focused on future technologies and set a goal to create a “Digital Silk Road” that would involve communication infrastructure projects driven by Chinese national champion state owned enterprises like Huawei and China Unicom.14 These projects were intended to include both the provision of 5G-capable network infrastructure for developing nations as well as subsea communications infrastructure to connect partner nations to China’s internet service providers. To this end, Huawei, an electronics hardware conglomerate, established Huawei Marine in 2009 to begin providing marine communications technology hardware and infrastructure services.15 Huawei Marine, as a newcomer to the maritime communications technology industry, had to compete with established Western companies like SubCom and Alcatel Submarine Networks to build and maintain subsea infrastructure.16

While the United States and its allies did not have the appetite to compete with China’s massive spending spree in the developing world, an alignment of government and commercial interests has led it and other western-aligned countries to dominate the communications landscape in the Pacific. As of this writing, no Chinese-owned or operated subsea cable is the sole provider for subsea communications to any Pacific Island.17 Further, networks generally reject any Huawei and other Chinese state-owned-enterprise communications and network hardware.18 This outcome bodes well for American interests in the Pacific, and the expanded provision of network capabilities to Pacific Island countries and territories will have beneficial economic impacts on local economies. In the following section, this paper will analyze case studies of Guam and the Solomon Islands as it relates to the competition of US and Chinese telecommunications providers and the expansion of Pacific telecommunications networks.

Case Study: Guam

Guam is a small Pacific Island that is the southernmost island in the Mariana Island chain and is the largest island in Micronesia.19 Guam has a rich history of indigenous culture and position in contemporary history as a strategic way point in the Pacific Ocean for competing navies. Guam was a protectorate of the United States Navy following the end of the Spanish-American war in 1898 and then received formal recognition as an unincorporated territory with self-rule in 1950.20 Guam is also home to a large American military presence and hosts a U.S. Naval Base, an Air Force Air Field, and a burgeoning Marine Corps Base. Because it is the United States’ westernmost territory, Guam is also a landing point for many trans-Pacific cables, earning it the moniker “The Big Switch in the Pacific.”

The first transpacific cable landed on Guam in 1904 by a private enterprise led by John Mackay. This cable functioned until 1950 when a fault removed it from service leaving decades of inconsistent telecommunications connectivity until the advent and proliferation of fiber-optic cables. Following the advent of fiber-optic cables, there was an explosion of telecommunication activity on Guam evident by the laying of sixteen cables between 1987 and 2022 – roughly one cable every two years.21 See Figure 1.

Cable System Name Year Status
TPC-3 1987 Retired
GPT 1990 Retired
PacRim West 1995 Retired
Mariana-Guam (MICS) 1997 Currently lit
GP 1999 Retired 2011
Australia-Japan 2001 Currently lit
China-US 2001 Retired 2016
Tata TGN Pacific 2002 Currently lit
Asia-America Gateway 2009 Currently lit
PPC-1 2009 Currently lit
HANTRU1 2010 Currently lit
Guam Okinawa Kyushu Incheon 2013 Currently lit
Atisa 2017 Currently lit
SEA-US 2017 Currently lit
Japan-Guam-Australia North 2020 Currently lit
Japan-Guam-Australia South 2020 Currently lit
Echo 2023 Planned, not lit
Apricot 2024 Planned, not lit
Bifrost 2024 Planned, not lit
Asia Connect Cable 1 (ACC-1) 2025 Planned, not lit

Figure 1: A historic list of telecommunication cables landing on Guam

Despite sixteen cables laid on Guam over the past three decades, Guam’s telecommunications market is relatively small. Guam’s population is around 170,000 people, roughly the same as a midsized American city like Springfield, Missouri.22 Despite this small market, three competing internet and communications service providers compete for market share on the island – Docomo, IT&E, and GTA. As of 2017, Guam had an internet penetration rate of eighty-one percent among its population.23 As a US territory that hosts a large military footprint, Guam’s telecommunications network is largely insulated from Chinese intrusion. Measures such as Federal government regulation, import controls, and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) largely block Chinese or Chinese-funded companies from penetrating the Guamanian telecommunications sector.24

Further, as a result of Guam’s strategic position as a gateway to Asia and wider trends in the telecommunications sector, many large US technology companies are vying to invest in data centers in Guam.25 These data centers will serve as edge storage and computing nodes for internet service providers with retail and commercial customers in the Indo-Pacific theater. This next wave of telecommunications infrastructure poses an additional benefit to Guam’s local economy, as the influx of investment to stand up data centers that rely on consistent power generation and stable climate will likely create increased opportunities for job growth and a local telecommunications expertise.

Because of these reasons, Guam’s role as the “Big Switch in the Pacific” has been a driver of its local economy and will likely continue to yield dividends as the telecommunications industry matures and seeks improved and additional infrastructure projects. Additionally, as the United States focuses its national security posture on the Pacific theater, Guam will likely see increased military investment which has both positive and negative effects on local culture, but inarguably injects additional capital into the small island.

Case Study: The Solomon Islands

A study of the Solomon Islands’ telecommunications infrastructure and geopolitical position is an interesting counterpoint to Guam. Unlike Guam, the Solomon Islands is a sovereign nation state comprised of hundreds of islands off the East coast of Papua New Guinea and Northwest of Australia.26 The Solomon Islands have a population of approximately 700,000, but a gross domestic product of only $1.6 billion.27 Compared to Guam’s population of 170,000 and 2021 GDP of $5.8 billion, an apparent disparity exists as the Solomon Islands trails Guam’s development and productivity in terms of per capita GDP. Additionally, the Solomon Islands had an internet penetration rate of only 12% in 2017, and reportedly around 30% in 2022.28 While Guam serves as a switch for a growing inventory of subsea cables, the Solomon Islands is served by only one cable, the Coral Sea Cable (installed in 2020), which connects four of its major islands to New Guinea and Australia.29

To maintain a neutral position in the Sino-American competition for influence in the South Pacific, the Solomon Islands previously courted foreign investments and partnerships from the party willing to make them. The Coral Sea Cable reveals how the competition between China and US-aligned nations plays out over competition to build telecommunications infrastructure.

In 2018, the Solomon Islands government announced a partnership with China’s Huawei Technology Company to install a maritime fiber-optic cable that would link the islands to its two major neighbors: Papua New Guinea and Australia.30 This infrastructure project was long overdue, as high-speed internet was not available to an overwhelming majority of Solomon islanders. When the Solomon Islands announced the partnership with Huawei, US and Australian diplomats identified the risk that Huawei hardware and software could pose to Australia’s telecommunications network and began pushing the Solomon Islands to reconsider the partnership.31 Ultimately, the Australian government financed construction of the Coral Sea Cable by providing $92 million dollars in funding.32 Australia’s commitment, alongside diplomatic pressure from Japan and the United States, blocked Huawei from installing a new fiber-optic system connecting Pacific Island countries and further pushed the balance of power towards US-aligned nations in the Pacific telecommunications race. Unfortunately, these same pressures did not stop Papua New Guinea from completing its own domestic fiber-optic cable in partnership with Huawei Maritime Tech Co. in 2019.33

Although the Solomon Islands government ultimately partnered with Australia and the Australian firm Vocus to lay the Coral Sea Cable, the Solomon Island government has continued to court Chinese infrastructure investment. In 2019, the Solomon Islands formally ceased diplomatic relations with Taiwan, possibly to ensure future close diplomatic ties to the PRC. Then, in 2022, the Solomon Islands again announced a partnership with Huawei to build 161 mobile transmission towers financed by a $66 million loan from China’s Export Import Bank.34 The project has an expected completion date of November 2023, with the goal of installing most of the towers before Solomon Islands hosts the Pacific Games. Australia and other Pacific partners have again voiced opposition and concern about Huawei’s integration into the Solomon Islands’ local telecommunications infrastructure.35

The Solomon Islands’ diplomatic posturing between both Chinese and Australian/US-aligned investment gives it negotiating power to derive maximum investment from all sides. Its government cannot be criticized for attempting to upgrade the country’s telecommunications infrastructure to connect its population and drive GDP growth. However, negotiators should see the consistent playbook of courting Chinese investment and pressuring Australia and Pacific nations to step in with additional funding. While this means that Huawei and China are still in the race for dominance of Pacific telecommunications infrastructure, the Coral Sea Cable project shows that nations will choose US-aligned nations when given the opportunity. Therefore, it is up to the United States and its allies to create the opportunities to do so.

Undersea cables in the Pacific and proposed projects. (Reuters graphic)

The United States’ Pacific Policy Response

A broad decoupling of American and Chinese industries has been the theme of the early 2020s. For example, equity markets demanded audit transparency of Chinese firms listed in the United States and threatened to delist noncompliant companies.36 Further, the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018 strengthened the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS) and gave the federal government broad power to mitigate or block adversarial investment or ownership in industries sensitive to The United States’ national security.37 With additional authorities, CFIUS has been increasingly aggressive and encouraged by members of Congress to investigate and block specific transactions. In CFIUS’ shadow however, there is a smaller interagency committee that receives less media coverage but is largely responsible for ensuring United States telecommunications resiliency and for winning the telecommunications competition in the South Pacific. That committee is the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector (Team Telecom). This Committee’s name does not have a phonetic acronym and is referred to simply as “Team Telecom.” 

Team Telecom is an interagency committee chaired by the Department of Justice that includes the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.38 Executive Order 13913 established Team Telecom in April 2020. The Committee provides the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with recommendations on whether to issue licenses to companies applying to provide telecommunications services or otherwise connect to the domestic US telecommunications network.39 This scope includes licenses to provide cable-based international telecommunications transport services, licenses to provide satellite communications, and multiple other FCC licenses.

When the FCC receives an application for a new cable landing or for the transfer existing assets to a foreign purchaser, the FCC will refer the transaction to Team Telecom for review by the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Defense to ensure that national security interests will not be affected or compromised by the foreign owner. If Team Telecom sees undue risk to domestic consumer data or to secured government data traffic traveling over a particular cable system, the members then recommend that the FCC deny the license or grant the license with specific conditions to mitigate the national security risk.40 In effect, this collaborative effort has succeeded in sealing out adversarial actors from the United States telecommunications sector, and shielded the United States telecommunications industry from Chinese competition and associated risks.

Because the United States controls strategic switching points in the Pacific, namely American Samoa, Guam, and Hawaii, Team Telecom’s rules regarding network hardware manufacturers and cyber security standards apply to any cable that lands in those territories. Because these territories are situated at geographically strategic points in the Pacific, Team Telecom’s rulings have become the de facto standard for the Pacific maritime telecommunications industry. While CFIUS is garnering headlines by protecting American technology and forcing adversary finance from core aspects of the United States’ domestic economy, Team Telecom operates quietly to both preserve the integrity of the United States’ domestic telecommunications network as well as set the conditions for US-aligned telecommunications companies to dominate network infrastructure across the Pacific Ocean.

The proliferation of Pacific subsea telecommunication cables is not a product of government policy alone. Rather, the information technology explosion of the past two decades and the demand for near-instant communication and connectivity to markets around the world created a huge demand for telecommunications capacity. The volume of cables landing on Guam in Figure 1 captures the frenetic pace of construction and expansion of bandwidth connecting North America to Asia. Furthermore, advances in materials science allowed fiber-optic cables to carry increasing volumes of data. The MICS cable, installed in 1997 that connects the Mariana Island chain, provides an estimated bandwidth capacity of 622 Megabytes per second, while Google’s Apricot cable is projected to have the capacity to run 190 Terabytes per second (190,000,000 Megabytes per second), or just over 300,000 times the throughput of the MICS cable.41 Despite exponential increases in data transport capabilities, infrastructure cables have continuously struggled to keep pace with industry demands for transport service. A trend away from consortia construction of fiber-optic lines in the telecommunications industry is one of the results of data transport demand so quickly outstripping supply.

In the early stages of large fiber-optic cable projects, international consortia of telecommunication infrastructure companies, government organizations, and occasionally research organizations primarily funded and planned new cable lines. In 2007, a consortium of 19 different parties funded the Asia American Gateway cable and laid 20,000 kilometers of fiber-optic cable from the United States, through Guam, to South Pacific nations like Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines.42 The Australia-Japan cable, laid in 2009, was funded through a consortium of five telecommunications companies – Communications Global Network Services Ltd, NTT Ltd, Softbank Corp., Telstra, and MFC Globenet, Inc.43 This trend of consortium ownership was necessary to secure the required licenses and regulatory approvals to run and maintain new cables across multiple jurisdictions, as well as to diversify financial risk across a number of different owners. However, a new trend has emerged. Technology “hyperscalers” like Meta (formerly Facebook), Google, and Amazon are now unilaterally, or bilaterally, building and controlling their own cables.

Over the past few years, technology conglomerate hyperscalers announced projects that will install and operate their own series of subsea fiber-optic cables. These hyperscalers have been overwhelmingly American and are creating the next wave of telecommunications infrastructure that will be primarily influenced by US legislation and governmental policy. Hyperscalers are interested in building and owning their own infrastructure so that they get primary right of transport on the cable, instead of having to negotiate and pay for leases on competitor or legacy cables. Google and Meta plan to run two new cables, Echo and Bifrost, through Guam to diverse landing points in the Pacific.44 Additionally, Google plans to create the Apricot Cable to extend Google Cloud services to markets that complement Echo and Bifrost’s reach.45 These cables will have the net effect of increasing internet connectivity and lowering latency for large swaths of under-connected Pacific populations.46 The ancillary effect is that these hyperscalers are all primarily US corporations, subject to US regulation and therefore prohibited from contracting with or connecting to many Chinese telecommunications providers. While US technology champions are on a building spree, China’s technology champions and state-owned enterprises like HMN Technologies (formerly known as Huawei Maritime Networks) do not have plans to build any comparable trans-Pacific cables. With the United States’ alignment of commercial demand and governmental industrial policy, fiber-optic cables have and will continue to proliferate in the Pacific, creating net benefit to both isolated Pacific Island Countries and the United States.

Conclusion: The United States is Winning the Pacific Telecom Race

The United States is particularly well suited to win the contest to dictate and control operations, standards, and installation of new telecommunications infrastructure in the Pacific. As discussed, the United States’ control of key geographic islands like Hawaii and Guam gives it an upper hand when seeking to run transpacific fiber-optic cables. As “The Big Switch in the Pacific,” Guam is well situated as the landing point of choice for the next generation of transpacific cables that will effectively seal out Chinese telecom competitors from the Pacific subsea infrastructure market. The US Team Telecom’s oversight and regulation, in addition to associated federal industrial policies, has effectively increased critical telecommunications infrastructure resiliency and set a standard for new infrastructure projects in the Pacific. This beneficial status quo is reflected in the relationship between island nations such as the Solomon Islands and the United States and its allies. While Pacific Island Countries like the Solomon Islands will continue to entertain Chinese technology investment, case studies like the Coral Sea Cable show that these nations will elect Western infrastructure programs when given the opportunity. Finally, the geopolitical competition to connect the Pacific is a massive net benefit for Pacific Island Countries’ populations. Competitive and redundant communications infrastructure mean that the number of nations and islands that rely on single points of failure for their communications will diminish over time as future cable projects propagate. On a geopolitical note, the race to build and operate Pacific telecommunications infrastructure is a bright spot for the United States and a valuable case study in how governmental policy and commercial opportunity can interact to protect American interests and extend necessary and beneficial services to the global community.

Geoffrey Irving works with the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense, Acquisition and Sustainment to protect the Defense Industrial Base. Geoff previously served on active duty with the U.S. Marine Corps, and is currently a Major in the United States Marine Corps Reserve. Geoff is a graduate of Tsinghua University College of Law and writes about the national security implications of international economic competition. 

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


[1] 2013 Section 43.82 Circuit Status Data, FCC International Bureau Report, Federal Communications Committee (July 2015)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Micah Maidenberg, “Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Pentagon to Deepen Ties Despite Dispute on Starlink Funding in Ukraine,” Wall Street Journal, October 20, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/elon-musks-spacex-pentagon-to-deepen-ties-despite-dispute-on-starlink-funding-in-ukraine-11666270801; Ibid.

[4] Allison Marsh “The First Transatlantic Telegraph Cable was a Bold Beautiful Failure” IEEE Spectrum, (October 31 2019), https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-first-transatlantic-telegraph-cable-was-a-bold-beautiful-failure

[5] Justin Sherman, “Cyber Defense Across the Ocean Floor: The Geopolitics of Submarine Cable Security” Atlantic Council Snowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Cyber Statecraft Initiative (September 2021)

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Honolulu’s First Cable” Evening Bulletin, December 5, 1902.

[8] Bill Burns “Submarine Cable History” SubmarineCableSystems.com, 2012. https://www.submarinecablesystems.com/history

[9] Justin Sherman, “Cyber Defense Across the Ocean Floor: The Geopolitics of Submarine Cable Security” Atlantic Council Snowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, Cyber Statecraft Initiative (September 2021)

[10] Ibid.

[11] Amanda Watson, “The Limited Communication Cables for Pacific Island Countries,” Asia-Pacific Journal of Ocean Law and Policy, vol 7, 2022

[12] Ibid.

[13] U.S. Library of Congress, CRS, China’s 14th Five-Year Plan: A First Look, by Karen Sutter and Michael Sutherland, CRS Report IFI1684 (Washington, DC: Office of Congressional Information and Publishing, January 5, 2021).

[14] Ibid.

[15] Thomas Blaubach “Connecting Beijing’s Global Infrastructure: The PEACE Cable in the Middle East and North Africa,” MEI Policy Center (March 2022)

[16] “Submarine Fiber Cable Market Size to Grow by USD 3.86 Bn at a CAGR of 11.04%| Investments Source Segment is expected to witness lucrative growth,” Technavio Research (May 27, 2022): https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/submarine-fiber-cable-market-size-to-grow-by-usd-3-86-bn-at-a-cagr-of-11-04-investments-source-segment-is-expected-to-witness-lucrative-growth–technavio-301555740.html

[17] “HMN Tech,” Submarine Cable Map, TeleGeography, accessed November 13, 2022; https://www.submarinecablemap.com

[18] Amy Remeikis, “Australia supplants China to build undersea cable for Solomon Islands,” The Guardian, June 13, 2018

[19] “Guam,” The World Factbook, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, accessed November 13, 2022

[20] Ibid.

[21] “Guam,” Submarine Cable Map, TeleGeography, accessed November 13, 2022; https://www.submarinecablemap.com

[22] “Population, total – Guam” Data, The World Bank, accessed November 13, 2022; https://data.worldbank.org/country/GU

[23] “Individuals using the Internet (% of population) – Guam” Data, The World Bank, accessed November 13, 2022; https://data.worldbank.org/country/GU

[24] Donald Trump, Executive Order 13913, “Establishing the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector.” Federal Register 85, no. 19643 (April 4, 2022): https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/04/08/2020-07530/establishing-the-committee-for-the-assessment-of-foreign-participation-in-the-united-states

[25] David Abecassis, Dio Teo, Goh Wei Jian, Michael Kende, Neil Gandal, “Economic Impact of Google’s APAC Network Infrastructure,” Anlysys Mason (September 2020)

[26] “Solomon Islands,” The World Factbook, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, accessed November 13, 2022

[27] “Population, total – Solomon Islands” Data, The World Bank, accessed November 13, 2022; https://data.worldbank.org/country/solomon-islands

[28] “Individuals using the Internet (% of population) – Solomon Islands” Data, The World Bank, accessed November 13, 2022; https://data.worldbank.org/country/solomon-islands; Georgina Kekea, “Solomon Islands secures $100m China loan to build Huawei mobile towers in historic step,” The Guardian, (August 18, 2022)

[29] “Solomon Islands,” Submarine Cable Map, TeleGeography, accessed November 13, 2022; https://www.submarinecablemap.com

[30] Amy Remeikis, “Australia supplants China to build undersea cable for Solomon Islands,” The Guardian, June 13, 2018

[31] Colin Packham, “Ousting Huawei, Australia finishes laying undersea internet cable for Pacific allies,” Reuters, (August 27, 2019), https://www.reuters.com/article/us-australia-pacific-cable/ousting-huawei-australia-finishes-laying-undersea-internet-cable-for-pacific-allies-idUSKCN1VI08H

[32] Australian High Commission Papua New Guinea, “Coral Sea Cable System launched”. Accessed November 13, 2022; https://png.embassy.gov.au/pmsb/1148.html#:~:text=Construction%20of%20the%20cable%20system,Guinea%20and%20Solomon%20Islands%20governments.

[33] Corinne Reichert, “PNG sticks with Huawei for subsea cable: Report” ZD Net Magazine, November 26, 2018; https://www.zdnet.com/article/png-sticks-with-huawei-for-subsea-cable-report/

[34] Georgina Kekea, “Solomon Islands secures $100m China loan to build Huawei mobile towers in historic step,” The Guardian, (August 18, 2022)

[35] Ibid.

[36] Matthew P. Goodman, “Unpacking the PCAOB Deal on U.S.-Listed Chinese Companies,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, (September 28, 2022)

[37] Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act of 2018, US Code 50 (2018), § 4565

[38] Donald Trump, Executive Order 13913, “Establishing the Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector.” Federal Register 85, no. 19643 (April 4, 2022): https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/04/08/2020-07530/establishing-the-committee-for-the-assessment-of-foreign-participation-in-the-united-states

[39] Ibid.

[40] “The Committee for the Assessment of Foreign Participation in the United States Telecommunications Services Sector – Frequently Asked Questions” National Security Division, United States Department of Justice, accessed November 13, 2022; https://www.justice.gov/nsd/committee-assessment-foreign-participation-united-states-telecommunications-services-sector

[41] Federal Communications Commission. “In the Matter of Micronesian Telecommunications Corporation, Application for a license to land and Operate a High Capacity Digital Submarine Cable System Extending Between the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and Guam,” File No. S-C-L-92-003, February 3, 1993. https://transition.fcc.gov/ib/pd/pf/scl_doc/93-91.pdf; Nico Roehrich “Apricot subsea cable will boost internet capacity, speeds in the Asia-Pacific region” Engineering at Meta, August 15, 2021; https://engineering.fb.com/2021/08/15/connectivity/apricot-subsea-cable/

[42] “About Us’ Asia American Gateway, accessed November 13, 2022; https://asia-america-gateway.com/AboutUs.aspx

[43] “Staff & Shareholders” Australia Japan Cable, accessed November 13, 2022; https://ajcable.com/ajc-network/staff-shareholders/

[44] Bikash Koley, “This bears repeating: Introducing the Echo subsea cable,” Google Cloud Blog, March 29,2021, https://cloud.google.com/blog/products/infrastructure/introducing-the-echo-subsea-cable

[45] Ibid.

[46] Bikash Koley, “Announcing Apricot: a new subsea cable connecting Singapore to Japan,” Google Cloud Blog, August 16, 2021; https://cloud.google.com/blog/products/infrastructure/new-apricot-subsea-cable-brings-more-connectivity-to-asia

Featured Image: APRA HARBOR, Guam (March 5, 2016) An aerial view from above U.S. Naval Base Guam (NBG) shows Apra Harbor with several navy vessels in port. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Deven Ellis/Released)

East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zones: A Primer

This article is part of a series that will explore the use and legal issues surrounding military zones employed during peace and war to control the entry, exit, and activities of forces operating in these zones. These works build on the previous Maritime Operational Zones Manual published by the Stockton Center for International Law predecessor’s, the International Law Department, of the U.S. Naval War College. A new Maritime Operational Zones Manual is forthcoming.

By LtCol Brent Stricker

Tensions could be high in East Asia when a civil aircraft flying in international airspace over the East China Sea (ECS) finds itself intercepted by military fighter aircraft. These aircraft are part of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) system which exists to identify and control aircraft approaching a nation’s airspace. Intercepted aircraft can be ordered to land in a country they never intended to visit, shot down for failure to comply, or perhaps suffer a mid-air collision as occurred in the EP-3 incident. Unfortunately in the ECS, there are four overlapping ADIZs (Japan, Korea, China, and Taiwan) increasing the risk for civil aircraft navigating the area.

The patchwork of overlapping Air Defense Identification Zones (ADIZs) covering much of the East China Sea represents a potential flashpoint for conflict. A brief survey of the history, purpose, and location of these zones can help frame these risks for the future.

A Short History of the ADIZ

International law governing aircraft evolved after the First World War with the adoption of the 1919 Paris Convention for the Regulation of Aerial Navigation.1 The Paris Convention treated international air space like the high seas, adopting the principle of caelum liberum (freedom of the skies) where national sovereignty could not be asserted.2 The Paris Convention was replaced by the 1944 Convention on International Civil Aviation (Chicago Convention). The Chicago Convention maintains the distinction between national and international airspace but only applies to civil aircraft.3 State aircraft, which include military, customs, and police aircraft, are exempt from compliance with the convention but must operate with “due regard” for the safety of civil aircraft and may not fly over the territory, including the territorial sea, of or land in another state without permission.4

An Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) is defined in Annex 15 of the Chicago Convention as a “Special designated airspace of defined dimensions within which aircraft are required to comply with special identification and/or reporting procedures additional to those related to the provision of air traffic services (ATS).”5 Information regarding the establishment of ADIZs and their reporting requirements is available in each states’ Aviation Information Publication.6

The United States pioneered this concept by creating the first ADIZ in 1950 and encouraging its allies, such as Norway, Iceland, Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, to establish similar zones. An ADIZ can extend beyond national air space into international airspace to allow states to identify aircraft approaching their territory to ensure they are not a hostile threat. ADIZ reporting requirements vary by state, but all have requirements to identify approaching aircraft and their origin and destination. An ADIZ is analogous to port entry requirements or conditions a state imposes on ships entering or transiting its internal waters.7 Since the end of the Cold War, ADIZs have declined in use. Norway and Iceland’s ADIZs, for example, were decommissioned after the Cold War ended.8

While states exercise sovereignty over their national airspace, an ADIZ that extends beyond a state’s territorial sea only allows the state to establish “conditions and procedures for entry into its national airspace.”9 These conditions and procedures may include filing a flight plan before departure, aircraft identification requirements, and positional updates.10 Aircraft entering an ADIZ that do not intend to enter national airspace continue to enjoy high seas freedoms of overflight and are not required to comply with ADIZ requirements.11

A civil aircraft entering an ADIZ that fails to comply with the conditions and procedures for entry into national airspace may be considered a potential threat. Typically, such non-compliant aircraft are intercepted by military aircraft to determine their intentions. Violation of ADIZ requirements does not, however, authorize a military aircraft to attack a civil aircraft unless it commits a hostile act or demonstrates hostile intent.12 For example, in February 1961, a Soviet state aircraft was flying in international airspace over the Mediterranean Sea 80 miles off the coast of French Algeria when it was intercepted by a French fighter.13 The French claimed that the aircraft had entered a declared “zone of identification,” had diverted from its declared flight path, and was approaching Algeria without responding to radio challenges.14 Although only warning shots were fired, the diplomatic fallout of the incident was a recognition by both the Eastern and Western powers that there was a free right to navigation in international airspace even within an ADIZ.15

East China Sea ADIZ

ADIZs have been established in North Asia by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. The PRC ADIZ differs from the others in that it intentionally overlaps portions of the other three. The PRC ADIZ also includes the airspace above Japanese administered territory16 and appears to assert jurisdiction over international air space.17  (The People’s Republic of China AIP can be accessed here.)18

The PRC declared an ADIZ in the East China Sea on November 23, 2013.19 This ADIZ differs from other zones because claims to apply to all aircraft transiting the zone whether or not they intend to enter PRC national airspace. Such a requirement is inconsistent with international law.20 The zone requires all aircraft transiting through the zone “to follow identification rules, including filing a flight plan with the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Civil Aviation Administration; maintaining two-way radio communications and responding promptly to identification requests from the Ministry of National Defense; operating a secondary radar responder (if equipped); and marking nationalities and logos clearly.”21 The zone therefore illegally purports to assert PRC jurisdiction over aircraft in international airspace.22 Under international law, all transiting aircraft are guaranteed freedom of overflight in international airspace seaward of the territorial sea.

The PRC zone directly overlaps with those of Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.23 This was the first ADIZ to intentionally overlap with another.24 It also includes airspace over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands adjacent to Taiwan. These islands are the subject of a territorial dispute between the PRC/Taiwan and Japan.25

Both the United States and Japan protested the establishment of the ECS ADIZ. Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry accused China of attempting to change the status quo in the East China Sea and increasing tensions in the region. The U.S. statement further indicated that the United States does not “support efforts by any state to apply its ADIZ procedures to foreign aircraft not intending to enter its national airspace.” Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs similarly accused China of attempting to change the status quo in the East China Sea, indicating that the ADIZ “measures unduly infringe the freedom of flight in international airspace…and will have serious impacts on the order of international aviation.” Japan also objected strongly to the inclusion of the airspace over the Senkaku Islands within the ECS ADIZ.


Lateral Limits

Upper/Lower Limits and
system/means of activation announcement
1 2

3º11’N and 121º47’E , 33º11’N and 125º00’E, 31º00’N and 128º20’E, 25º38’N and 125º00’E, 24º45’N and 123º00’E, 26º44’N and 120º58’E

Figure 1: East China Sea Air Identification Zones

Taiwan’s ADIZ is defined in its AIP.26 The Taiwan ADIZ was established by the United States after the Second World War and applies the standard request for aircraft entering the zone intending to enter Taiwanese air space to identify themselves. Civil aircraft are required to fly above 4,000 feet along designated airways or as vectored by air traffic controllers. Aircraft that do not comply with these requirements are subject to intercept by military aircraft.27 Other examples for intercept include, “Aircraft deviat[ing] from the current flight plan – fail[uire] to pass over a compulsory reporting point within 5 minutes of the estimated time over that point; deviat[ing] 20 NM from the centerline of the airway; or 2000FT difference from the assigned altitude; or any other deviations.”28 Taiwan’s AIP publishes strict guidance for aircraft to “fly straight and level” upon interception and to take no action that might be viewed as hostile. Communication with the intruding aircraft will be attempted via radio or visual signals. The AIP notes that Taiwan will not be held responsible for damages caused by interception or failure to comply with ADIZ requirements. Since September 2020, Chinese military aircraft have maintained a near continuous presence in the Taiwan ADIZ, penetrating the zone nearly 2,200 times. Although China believes that these incursions are consistent with international law because Taiwan is part of China, Taiwan has stated that it will respond in self-defense if attacked.


Lateral Limits

Upper/Lower Limits and
system/means of activation announcement
1 2
Taiwan ADIZ
210000N 1173000E –
210000N 1213000E –
223000N 1230000E –
290000N 1230000E –
290000N 1173000E –
210000N 1173000E.

The South Korean ADIZ is described in its AIP.29 The ADIZ was established in 1951 by the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. It currently includes airspace above Ieodo/Suyan, a submerged feature disputed between South Korea and the PRC. South Korea expanded its ADIZ to include the airspace over Ieodo in December 2013 after the PRC included the airspace above the feature in its ADIZ in November 2013.30 The Korean ADIZ is similar to the PRC ADIZ in that it requires aircraft flying in the zone to submit a flight plan whether or not they intend to enter Korean air space. Aircraft are required to maintain two-way radio contact, use a secondary surveillance radar transponder, and make position reports every thirty minutes to air traffic control. 

An illustration of Japan’s ADIZ is contained in its AIP.31 Japan’s ADIZ was established in 1969. It does not include the airspace above the disputed Northern Territories/Kuril Islands controlled by Russia.32 The Japanese ADIZ follows the North American example applying its procedures only to aircraft intending to enter Japanese national airspace. The zone is divided into an inner and outer zone. The inner zone overlaps the territorial Sea of Japan. An aircraft entering the inner zone is expected to file a flight plan in advance and comply with air traffic control instructions or face interception.

Name and lateral limits Upper limit / Lower limit
1 2

3900N 12330E – 3900N 13300E-

3717N 13300E – 3600N 13030E-

3513N 12948E – 3443N 12909E-

3417N 12852E – 3230N 12730E-

3230N 12650E – 3000N 12525E-

3000N 12400E – 3700N 12400E-

3900N 12330E

Figure 2: Air Defense Identification Zone of Japan


While ADIZs may have once been a relic of the Cold War, the situation in the East China Sea has seen an increase in their use. As the issue of China-Taiwan relations remains unresolved, the PRC ADIZ might become a tool to pressure other nations if the PRC chooses to assert sovereignty over the ADIZ by intercepting civil aircraft over the ECS. Certainly for Taiwan, repeated instances of Chinese military aircraft testing Taiwan’s response time show that ADIZs will remain relevant for the foreseeable future.

LtCol Brent Stricker, U.S. Marine Corps, serves as the Director for Expeditionary Operations and as a military professor of international law at the Stockton Center for International Law at the U.S. Naval War College. The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.


1. Convention on International Civil Aviation, Oct 13, 1919, 11 LNTS 174, reprinted in 17 AJIL Supp. 195 (1923) (no longer in effect).

2. Peter A. Dutton, “Caelum Liberum: Air Defense Identification Zones outside Sovereign Airspace” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 103, No. 4 (Oct., 2009), pp. 691-709, 692.

3. Chicago Convention Article 3.

4. Id.

5. INT’L Civil Aviation Organization, Convention on International Civil Aviation, Annex 15, International Standards and Recommended Practices, Aeronautical Information Services (16th ed. July 2018). .

6. For a comprehensive listing of AIPs see Hazy Library Emory Riddle Aeronautical University Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Resources: Electronic AIPs by Country (https://erau.libguides.com/uas/electronic-aips-country).

7. James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo International Maritime Security Law 158 (2013); Raul “Pete” Pedrozo, “Air Defense Identification Zones” 97 INT’L L. STUD. 7, 8 (2021).

8. Joëlle Charbonneau, Katie Heelis, and Jinelle Piereder, “Putting Air Defense Identification Zones on the Radar” Centre for International Governance Innovation POLICY BRIEF No. 1 • June 2015 CIGI Graduate Fellows Series at 2

9. J Ashley Roach “Air Defense Identification Zones” Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law www.mpepil.com, https://opil-ouplaw-com.usnwc.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/law:epil/9780199231690/law-9780199231690-e237; Each country’s ADIZ is defined in its own Aircraft Information Publication (AIP). Joëlle Charbonneau, Katie Heelis, and Jinelle Piereder, “Putting Air Defense Identification Zones on the Radar” Centre for International Governance Innovation POLICY BRIEF No. 1 • June 2015 CIGI Graduate Fellows Series at 4.

10. J Ashley Roach “Air Defense Identification Zones” Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law www.mpepil.com, (https://opil-ouplaw-com.usnwc.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/law:epil/9780199231690/law-9780199231690-e237).

11. J Ashley Roach “Air Defense Identification Zones” Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law www.mpepil.com, (https://opil-ouplaw-com.usnwc.idm.oclc.org/view/10.1093/law:epil/9780199231690/law-9780199231690-e237).

12. Chicago Convention Article 3.

13. Oliver J. Lissitzyn “Legal Implications of the U-2 and RB-47 Incidents” The American Journal of International Law Jan 1962, Vol 56, No.1 pp. 135-142. (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-journal-of-international-law/article/some-legal-implications-of-the-u2-and-rb47-incidents/EF3BFC9B45E842B3A5B298D120DBE241).

14. Lissitzyn at 141 (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-journal-of-international-law/article/some-legal-implications-of-the-u2-and-rb47-incidents/EF3BFC9B45E842B3A5B298D120DBE241).

15. Lissitzyn at 142 (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/american-journal-of-international-law/article/some-legal-implications-of-the-u2-and-rb47-incidents/EF3BFC9B45E842B3A5B298D120DBE241).

16. Joëlle Charbonneau, Katie Heelis, and Jinelle Piereder, “Putting Air Defense Identification Zones on the Radar” Centre for International Governance Innovation POLICY BRIEF No. 1 • June 2015 CIGI Graduate Fellows Series at 4.

17. “Strauss at 759; “Announcement of the Aircraft Identification Rules for the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone of the P.R.C.,” PRC Ministry of National Defense, November 23, 2013, (http://eng.mod.gov.cn/Press/2013-11/23/ content_4476143.htm).

18. To access the PRC AIP (https://www.aischina.com/EN/indexEn.aspx).

19. Ted Adam Newsome, “The Legality of Safety and Security Zones in Outer Space: A Look to Other Domains and Past Proposals” A thesis submitted to McGill University in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of MASTER OF THE LAWS (LL.M.) Institute of Air and Space Law McGill University, Faculty of Law Montreal, Quebec August 2016 at 47.

20. “Pedrozo at 9-10.

21. Edmund J. Burke and Astrid Stuth Cevallos, In Line or Out of Order? China’s Approach to ADIZ in Theory and Practice 6-7 (2017).

22. Edmund J. Burke and Astrid Stuth Cevallos, In Line or Out of Order? China’s Approach to ADIZ in Theory and Practice 7 (2017).

23. Raul “Pete” Pedrozo, “China’s Legacy Maritime Claims” Lawfare (July 15, 2016) (https://www.lawfareblog.com/chinas-legacy-maritime-claims).

24. Raul “Pete” Pedrozo, “China’s Legacy Maritime Claims” Lawfare (July 15, 2016) (https://www.lawfareblog.com/chinas-legacy-maritime-claims).

25. Edmund J. Burke and Astrid Stuth Cevallos, In Line or Out of Order? China’s Approach to ADIZ in Theory and Practice 1 (2017).

26. To access Taiwan’s AIP (https://eaip.caa.gov.tw/eaip/home.faces).

27. NR 1.12 Taiwan AIP.

28. NR 1.12 Taiwan AIP.

29. To access the South Korea AIP (https://aim.koca.go.kr/aim/main.do).

30. Michael Strauss “China-Japan-South Korea-Taiwan: East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zones” Border Disputes : A Global Encyclopedia: Functional Disputes, 2015, p.759-764, 761.

31. To access Japan’s AIP (https://aisjapan.mlit.go.jp/Login.do).

32. Edmund J. Burke and Astrid Stuth Cevallos, In Line or Out of Order? China’s Approach to ADIZ in Theory and Practice 5 (2017).

Featured Image: U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Self-Defense Force aircraft conduct a large-scale joint and bilateral integration training exercise on Tuesday in airspace near Japan. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Civilian Shipping: Ferrying the People’s Liberation Army Ashore

By Michael Dahm and Conor M. Kennedy

The Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) has been increasing its ability to use civilian roll-on/roll-off (RO-RO) ferries to move troops and equipment ashore in amphibious landing operations. In August 2020, the PLA conducted a cross-sea mobility evolution using RO-RO ferries. Exercise Eastern Transportation-Projection 2020A (东部运投—2020A) was unique in that it discharged military vehicles from RO-RO ferries directly onto a beach using a modular floating pier. Commercial satellite imagery of a PLA amphibious exercise area in late-summer 2021 revealed that the PLA may have developed an improved floating pier system to support amphibious operations.  These capabilities, components of what the U.S. Navy calls “joint logistics over-the-shore (JLOTS),” allows the PLA to use civilian vessels to move large amounts of military equipment into unimproved amphibious landing areas without port infrastructure. A Chinese mobile pier system like those observed in these exercises may have particular application for the PLA in an invasion of Taiwan. 

The PLA has been using civilian transportation capabilities for military mobility for many years, moving military forces and equipment up and down the Chinese coast. RO-RO ferries provide significant capacity to move armor and other rolling stock. Recent PLA innovations are enabling greater roles for civilian ferries to move forces ashore. For example, some Chinese civilian ferries have been retrofitted with capabilities to deploy amphibious armored vehicles at-sea, essentially making them auxiliary amphibious landing ships. This is likely meant to compensate for the apparent shortage in PLA amphibious lift required to conduct a cross-strait landing. The PLA appear to be learning from their American counterparts with solutions for moving forces and supplies ashore in the absence of port infrastructure. This article explores a novel floating pier system that may provide a solution to some of the PLA’s amphibious lift shortcomings.

What the Chinese call an “offshore mobile debarkation platform” (海上机动卸载平台) was spotted in commercial satellite imagery along the fishing wharves of the Lanshan District in Rizhao City, China in September 2020. A PLA 2007 patent application for a similar system indicates sections include “square” or intermediate pontoon modules (方形模块), bow-stern modules (首尾模块), ramp modules (坡道模块), powered modules (推进模块), cargo ferries (货运渡船) and lighters (驳船) as well as warping tugs (绞滩拖船) to maneuver the different sections. The floating pier system was developed by engineers at the PLA Military Transportation University in Tianjin.

Chinese modular floating pier system in port Lanshan, China, September 27, 2020 (Google Earth, Image © Maxar Technologies 2021)

The Chinese system looks very similar to the U.S. Navy’s Improved Navy Lighterage System (INLS), produced by the Fincantieri Marine Group.  The INLS is used principally by U.S. Navy Maritime Prepositioning Force (MPF) ships. The system appears to have the same types of interchangeable modules as the U.S. floating causeway system. The U.S. system is used for off-loading MPF ships miles off-shore and then floating equipment and cargo to the beach. Alternatively, the INLS can be employed as a floating pier as shown in the images below from Exercise JLOTS 2008 off Camp Pendleton, California.

 USNS Pililaau (T-AKR 304) with INLS in U.S. Exercise JLOTS 2008 (U.S. Navy Photo, MC2 Caracci)
 INLS employed as temporary pier in U.S. Exercise JLOTS 2008 (U.S. Navy Photo, MC3 Morales)

China’s National Defense Mobilization Committee ordered development of an offshore mobile debarkation platform for the PLA in 2001. The system was one of the major focus areas under “Project 019” (019工程), an effort to resolve issues of vehicle and materiel lightering when port infrastructure is unavailable or degraded by “blue forces.” A team of engineers at the PLA’s Military Transportation University worked for over a decade to overcome the engineering challenges associated with the system, especially as they related to connections between the modules and shallow water propulsion. Chinese media reports indicate the system has been used in exercises since 2012, but trials likely began earlier.

The offshore mobile debarkation system was featured in news coverage of a 2014 Guangzhou Military Region (GZMR) exercise. This was reportedly the first time the PLA used a civilian, militia-operated RO-RO ferry to embark and offload a PLA unit using the system.  The 2014 exercise took place in the southern port city of Zhanjiang where an unidentified PLA mechanized infantry company (机械化步兵连) was loaded onto the Nan Fang 6, a commercial RO-RO ferry that normally provides service between the mainland and Hainan Island.  As part of the exercise scenario, the ferry was told its destination terminal had been damaged and was ordered to offload over the beach. According to the news report, the PLA dispatched and assembled a “sectional causeway” (拼装式栈桥) system to a beach landing area. Warping tugs were shown assembling five pontoon units, extending the floating causeway approximately 600 feet from the shore.

Chinese offshore mobile debarkation system assembled in 2014 exercise in Zhanjiang, China (CCTV)

Interestingly, a semi-submersible barge, often used in port construction projects, was placed at the end of the causeway to act as the pier head. With a ramp leading to the causeway, the semi-submersible barge could raise or lower its height above the water to accommodate different size RO-RO vessels.

Semi-submersible barge used with offshore mobile debarkation system in 2014 exercise (CCTV)

After the RO-RO ferry docked with the semi-submersible barge, PLA equipment and troops immediately began to stream out of the ship. Reporters stated that the sectional causeway was assembled in just under an hour, a boast that seems somewhat implausible. The GZMR military transportation department director told reporters the floating causeway fixed “a number of bottlenecks in carrying out maritime projection with civilian ships.” There have been few other publicized training events using this system since the 2014 exercise. Prototypes of this system may have seen improvements by PLA engineers over the years, but its basic concept of operation appears to have remained the same.

Civilian ferry off-loading armored vehicles to beach in 2014 exercise (CCTV)

A Chinese television report on the August 2020 PLA exercise Eastern Transportation-Projection 2020A shows army equipment being loaded onto civilian ships in the port of Lianyungang. Footage showed the port’s container cranes loading trucks and other military cargo into the 322 foot general cargo ship Sheng Tai. At the nearby ferry terminal, PLA armored and wheeled vehicles were loaded aboard the Sheng Sheng 1, a 394 foot, 10,000 ton RO-RO ferry as well as the much larger Bohai Baozhu (Bohai Pearl) a 535 foot, 24,000 ton RO-RO ferry. Like most newer Chinese-flagged ferries, the Bohai Baozhu was built to national defense specifications for carrying military equipment.  The Bohai Baozhu is owned by the Bohai Ferry Group (渤海轮渡股份有限公司), which operates eleven RO-RO ferries in the Bohai Gulf. The company’s ships have been organized into the “Eighth Transport Dadui” (海运八大队), part of the PLA’s strategic projection support ship fleet (战略投送支援船队). The Sheng Sheng 1 is seen briefly at the end of the television report offloading tanks onto the semi-submersible barge and onto the offshore mobile debarkation system.  The Sheng Sheng 1 was also seen in the July 14, 2020 high-resolution Planet Labs SkySat image, below, preparing to back into the same semi-submersible barge attached to the floating pier.

Civilian ferry Sheng Sheng 1 off-loading tanks onto semi-submersible barge and offshore mobile debarkation system in the 2020 exercise (CCTV)
Sheng Sheng 1 maneuvering for a stern docking with the semi-submersible barge and floating pier (Includes content sourced via SkyWatch Space Applications Inc., Powered by Planet – SkySat Image © Planet Labs 2021)

A soon-to-be published paper presented at a recent conference on PLA amphibious operations hosted by the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute provides a comprehensive account of the 2020 exercise. Two dozen commercial ships, tugs, and military landing craft took part in the large-scale operation led by the PLA’s Joint Logistics Support Force. According to ship automatic identification system (AIS) tracks, RO-RO ferries and cargo vessels sailed from the embarkation port of Lianyungang 24 nautical miles north to Lanshan. According to Chinese media reports, just as in the 2014 Zhanjiang exercise, a major component of the exercise involved ferries off-loading using a semi-submersible barge and a floating pier.  Civilian ferries like the Bohai Baozhu and the Sheng Sheng 1 made several trips between Lianyungang and Lanshan, apparently transporting military equipment in each run before then returning to civilian ferry service across the Bohai Gulf. 

Typical tracks of exercise ships during Eastern Transportation-Projection 2020A (Supported with AIS data from MarineTraffic – Global Ship Tracking Intelligence, www.marinetraffic.com)

The Chinese offshore mobile debarkation system is large enough to be seen in lower resolution Planet Labs commercial satellite imagery acquired between June and August 2020.  The Lanshan beach area imaged is just north of the fishing wharf where the pier modules were imaged in September 2020.  The floating pier was set up and taken down several times over two months, each time with the semi-submersible barge attached or close by off-shore. The temporary piers in the Planet Labs images correspond to the lengths of the system seen in the much higher-resolution Google Earth/Maxar image – approximately 1200 feet for the green pontoon sections and 720 feet for the grey pontoon sections. The shorter floating pier was used throughout the course of the exercise for landing craft that were off-loading cargo ships and other ferries farther off-shore. Planet Labs imagery indicates the modular system remained in Lanshan until November 2020. Its current location is unknown.

Offshore mobile debarkation system moved to several locations during the 2020 exercise (Powered by Planet – PlanetScope Image © Planet Labs 2021)

In late-August and early-September 2021, a new modular pier system was spotted in commercial satellite imagery at a known PLA amphibious training area in Dacheng Bay, China near the southern end of the Taiwan Strait.  This improved system bears a closer resemblance to the U.S. Navy INLS.  It is much more substantial and longer than the older floating pier, extending approximately 1475 feet from the shore. According to AIS tracks, two Bohai Ferry Group ships, the Boahai Mazhu and the Bohai Cuizhu visited the Dacheng Bay amphibious training area on September 4, 2021, probably to off-load dozens of ten-man assault boats in support of an amphibious raid. One significant indicator of floating pier operations in the exercise area was the presence of the same semi-submersible barge that was used in the summer 2020 exercise, the Sanhanggong 8, operated by the state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC).  The new floating pier system, the semi-submersible barge and an unidentified temporary pier may be seen in the low-resolution satellite image, below. Analysis of this exercise and its use of civilian shipping is on-going.

New-type modular floating pier observed at PLA’s Dacheng Bay amphibious training area in September 2021 (Powered by Planet – PlanetScope Image © Planet Labs 2021)

Beyond the media reports of the 2014 exercise and the 2020/2021 exercises, there is little open-source reporting available on the PLA’s use of these sectional causeways. It is interesting to note that in each example, the system was deployed in relatively sheltered areas with calm waters. The original Chinese patent for the system indicates it can operate in sea state 3 (wave heights up to 4 feet), which is identical to the advertised operating limit of the U.S. Navy INLS.

The Chinese offshore mobile debarkation system, while not as striking as the Chinese Navy’s newest amphibious assault ships, may have greater implications for how the PLA projects power over-the-shore, especially in a cross-strait amphibious invasion of Taiwan. Any large-scale landing by PLA Navy amphibious assault ships will require significant maritime lift for second echelon forces and logistics. This modular pier system may allow China’s substantial fleet of large civilian RO-RO ships to offload combat troops and equipment directly onto Taiwan’s beaches. Proficiency with this system and other JLOTS capabilities will be a critical capability in a cross-strait invasion if the PLA is unable seize Taiwan’s port infrastructure intact.      

Michael Dahm is a senior researcher at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) and retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer. His research focuses on foreign military technologies and operational concepts.

Conor Kennedy is a research associate at the U.S. Naval War College, China Maritime Studies Institute. His research focuses on Chinese military development and maritime strategy.

The analyses and opinions expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Naval War College, the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) or APL sponsors. Commercial satellite images are sourced via SkyWatch Space Applications Inc. and Planet Labs, Inc. and are published under license from Planet Labs, which retains copyrights to the original, underlying images. This work has also been supported with AIS data from MarineTraffic – Global Ship Tracking Intelligence (www.marinetraffic.com).

Featured Image: An amphibious infantry fighting vehicle attached to a brigade of the PLA Navy Marine Corps launches anti-tank missiles during a maritime live-fire training exercise in mid July, 2021. (eng.chinamil.com.cn/Photo by Liu Yuxiang)