China has commissioned its first type 075 amphibious assault ship, which is expected to be deployed in the disputed South China Sea.
Military observers said the ship, named the Hainan, may also be deployed in missions around Taiwan but was likely to cause particular concern among countries that have ongoing maritime disputes with China due to its offensive capabilities.
State media reported that the vessel was commissioned on Friday at a ceremony attended by President Xi Jinping at a naval base in Sanya in Hainan province, along with the Dalian Type 055 destroyer and the Long March-18, a nuclear submarine that could launch the JL-1 and JL-2 gig wave ballistic missiles.
The Type 075 is able to carry an estimated 30 helicopters and hundreds of troops. It is China’s largest amphibious assault ship with an estimated displacement of about 40,000 tonnes.
Although the Z-8J and Z-20J armoured helicopters that it will carry are not yet ready for use, Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military affairs commentator and former PLA instructor, said the ship can carry various types of helicopters, including airborne early warning helicopters.
“The ship is deployed to the South Sea Fleet under the Southern Theatre Command. It does not mean it will only be responsible for the South China Sea. It will also be used for missions around Taiwan and other cross-theatre command tasks,” he said. “But presumably it will mainly be for the South China Sea”.
Observers said the type 075 could play a more important strategic role in the South China Sea, where China has a number of competing territorial claims with Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The United States has accused China of militarising the disputed waters, and has responded by sending warships and planes to the region to conduct what it describes as freedom of navigation operations.
Beijing has said these operations have violated its territorial sovereignty and increased the risk of conflict.
The other claimants have also criticised Beijing’s activities, and have also complained about coastguard vessels and fishing boats entering the disputed waters.
Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the deployment of the PLA’s most advanced amphibious assault ship to the Southern Theatre Command was designed to send a message to China’s neighbours.
“The ship can perform offensive functions – such as capture of terrestrial features in the disputed Spratlys, and in a Taiwan invasion scenario; or it can also be used for providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in times of peace,” he said.
Koh said China’s neighbours may feel the need to respond to the “widening asymmetry” in the military balance of power by upgrading their own armed forces and seeking support from external powers.
“As far as the region is concerned, given uncertainty over China’s strategic intentions and its proclivity to use military coercion, this vessel will more generally be seen with wariness by regional countries especially those which have territorial and sovereignty disputes with China”.
Additional reporting by Minnie Chan and Rachel Zhang
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