Fri, 19 Aug 2022

Hong Kong, November 29 (ANI): In recent years, China has been beefing up the expeditionary capacity - the ability to deploy at long distances at short notice - of its military. Indeed, the current civil unrest in the Solomon Islands in Melanesia is exactly the kind of situation in which one would expect Beijing to one day deploy troops.

With anti-government protestors running riot on the streets of the capital Honiara since 24 November, it was often Chinese businesses that bore the brunt of social discontent. Australia took the lead in dispatching troops and police, supported by personnel from Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Australia did so under the auspices of the Australia-Solomon Islands Bilateral Security Treaty that came into force in 2018.

Honiara is on the island of Guadalcanal, a furious World War II campaign recorded in the lore of the US Marine Corps. Yet, today, the USA does not even have an embassy in the Solomons. This is remarkable, because the Solomon Islands is a battleground for influence between China and the USA. Indeed, the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019, and the government plans to open up its natural resources to Chinese state companies.

The protestors called for Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare to step down, and there was anger about corruption and his alleged ties with China. There are widespread allegations that Sogavare and other leaders received Chinese cash, and some even claim that China plans to build a military base there. A Chinese military presence in the Solomon Islands would give a strategic advantage, helping geographically isolate Australia from Asia and from the USA.

Sogavare blamed "foreign powers" for stirring up the unrest, a narrative that China swiftly latched onto. Resentment has festered against Sogavare's government, especially in Malaita province. Ethnic Chinese are resented, for they dominate commerce, bring in their own workforce and export their profits. In other words, there is little benefit for the local population and economy, and Chinese criminal enterprises have followed too. This helps explain why much of Chinatown was burned and looted in the riots.

It is somewhat ironic, then, that Australia is leading a small peacekeeping force that is helping keep a pro-Chinese politician in power. Canberra is already deep in its own economic and diplomatic battle with Beijing.

As part of its Indo-Pacific policy, the US military intends to disperse units and deployments around the region. This will make less-inviting targets for the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and the Solomon Islands would make a good location for this US strategy. Instead, Washington has in many ways surrendered influence in the Solomon Islands to China.

Given the price paid by Chinese businesses during the riots, one wonders whether Beijing had in place contingency plans to send members of the PLA or the People's Armed Police there. Normally Chairman Xi Jinping takes opportunities as crises present themselves, and the Honiara situation could have given a pretext for China to send in "peacekeeping" troops.

One also wonders whether China suggested or was leaning on Sogavare to "invite" in a Chinese security presence. Of course, this would be a highly controversial action. It is perhaps instructive that China didnot immediately take this action, knowing it could have future blowback for Chinese influence in Oceania.

Of course, this Melanesian nation is no stranger to ethnic unrest. Australia and New Zealand led the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) from July 2003 till 2017. At its height, it involved some 2,200 personnel, including representatives from 15 different Pacific nations.

The PLA ground force contains approximately 975,000 troops of China's two-million-strong military. Yet it is the PLA Navy Marine Corps (PLANMC) that would be the most likely force that China would send overseas to somewhere like the Solomons. This is evinced by the fact that it is Chinese marines who man Beijing's first overseas military base in Djibouti in Africa.

A recent report entitled The New Chinese Marine Corps: A "Strategic Dagger" in a Cross- Strait Invasion, written by Conor Kennedy and published by the China Maritime Studies Institute of the US Naval War College, gave insights into this expeditionary force. Kennedy summarized a recent reorganization process: "Since 2017, the PLANMC has undergone significant expansion, growing from two brigades to eight. The major impetus behind these efforts is a desire to build the service arm into an expeditionary force capable of operating in most environments at short notice."For many years, the PLANMC comprised just two combat brigades with approximately 12,000 members, but since 2017 it has tripled in size and gained new equipment such as large Type 075 landing helicopter dock (LHD) vessels, the third of which is currently undergoing sea trials.

Kennedy noted, "The force is tasked with both its longstanding amphibious warfare mission as well as new missions. Over the past decade, the requirement of the PLA to diversify its mission set resulted in an expanded range of military operations for PLANMC forces, including greater emphasis on non-war military operations. Under the slogan of 'all-domain operations', the PLANMC now regularly trains to operate in new environments, such as desert, cold, jungle and high-elevation training areas.

When the 'new' PLANMC was officially established in 2017, its leadership called on the force 'to strive to build an elite force capable of full-spectrum operations, all-domain operations, operations in all dimensions, and emergency operations at all times.'"The American academic added, "Most importantly, the PLANMC is seen as the PLAN's future expeditionary force operating overseas to secure China's national interests and respond to crises. Echoing other official statements, former PLANMC political commissar Yuan Huazhi frankly stated in 2018, 'We must fully recognize the status and role of the marine corps as the "first choice for military forces to go abroad."' To serve this function, PLANMC leaders emphasize the importance of readiness, speed, adaptability and versatility in future force development."As part of its expansion, four new marine combat brigades were created - two in the Eastern Theater Command and two in the Northern Theater Command. The Special Operations Brigade (based in Sanya, Hainan Island with around 3,000 personnel) and the Naval Shipborne Aviation Brigade (based in Zhucheng, Shandong) were also formed.

The sudden expansion of the marine corps has not all been plain sailing. The Pentagon's China Military Power Report, published on 3 November, assessed that the PLANMC likely missed the "mechanization" target of the wider PLA, as the operationalization of its four new combat brigades had gone slower than expected.It has undergone radical restructuring too.

Similar to its army brethren, the PLANMC has embraced combined-arms structures. The 1st Marine Brigade was the first to adopt combined-arms battalions, flattening the chain of command from brigade down to battalion. Combined-arms battalions now feature reconnaissance, engineering, firepower and otherelements.

While it might be relatively straightforward to change structures on paper, the PLANMC has faced teething problems, such as training battalion commanders to better coordinate their various arms. Commanders and their staff are forced to grasp new specialties under their command, ones that perhaps they were not previously familiar with.

Nowadays, a Chinese amphibious brigade consists of nine battalions: two mechanized infantry battalions (with 56 ZBD-05 and ZTD-05 amphibious assault vehicles each); a light mechanized infantry battalion (with ZBL-09 8x8 vehicles and ZTL-11 assault vehicles); an air assault infantry battalion; a reconnaissance battalion; an artillery battalion (with PLZ-07B self-propelled howitzers); an air defense battalion; an operational support battalion; and a service support battalion.

These integral capabilities mean a marine battalion can operate relatively independently to seize coastal terrain. Breaking the structure down further, an amphibious combined-arms battalion comprises: four mechanized infantry companies (14 Type 05 amphibious assault vehicles each); a firepower company; a reconnaissance platoon; an air defense element; an artillery element; an engineer element; and a repair team. The PLANMC has also begun receiving the ZTQ-15 light tank, though numbers and receiving units are not clear yet.

The two original marine brigades - the 1st and 2nd based in Zhanjiang in the Southern Theater Command - are the most combat-ready. For this reason, they are the most likely to be mobilized to conduct a contingency operation overseas.

Formed in 2017, the aviation brigade adds a significant capability to the PLANMC, meaning it is no longer reliant on other services for air mobility. Its Z-8 and Z-9 helicopters can operate from Type 071 landing platform docks (LPD) and Type 075 LHDs, inserting troops from coastal waters to some depth onshore (perhaps up to 60km).

This aviation unit initially lacked training areas, support forces and pilots. Basically starting from scratch, a number of its pilots were transferred from the PLA ground force and retrained for shipborne operations. The brigade currently has two flight squadrons and an aircraft maintenance group, but this is likely to grow. The new Z-20 helicopter could join the brigade in the future, and possibly the Z-10 attack helicopter.

Kennedy observed, "Four years since the PLANMC was reformed and expanded, progress is far from complete. The 77th Motorized Infantry Brigade's transition to a PLANMC brigade was likely easier than the transition for the coastal defense units comprising the 3rd, 4th and 5th brigades. Those units came out of outdated forces under the provincial military district system instead of a group army, and they will probably require more investment."Nonetheless, there is a sense of urgency emanating from Xi and the PLA, and this will probably catalyze the rapid strengthening of the marine corps. Kennedy concluded: "Overall, the new PLANMC brigade structure demonstrates the PLANMC is not optimizing itself for a traditional amphibious assault on Taiwan's coast.

Compared to the PLA Army's six amphibious combined-arms brigades, the PLANMC lacks heavy amphibious combat units and has instead opted for more flexible and diverse capabilities within each brigade. Examining the statements by senior PLANMC leaders on force development, changes to training programs over the past several years, and the new brigade structure, it is increasingly clear the PLANMC is developing into an expeditionary force capable of operating overseas. Nevertheless, the force will certainly be a key component of the landing forces in any joint island landing campaign, and its newly reorganized battalions may be more combat effective under this new structure."All PLANMC brigades are located close to major ports, though the PLAN's amphibious vessel fleet is insufficient for the size of the marine corps. Clearly, for a swiftly emerging security situation such as has occurred in the Solomon Islands, transport by ship is too slow. The USA overcomes this by maintaining multiple marine expeditionary units that spend several months at sea aboard amphibious vessels, meaning they can deploy to trouble spots more quickly.

It would therefore not be a surprise to see the PLA create similar kinds of task forces in the future, especially as more Type 075 vessels enter service. "PLANMC forces...will eventually embark on future amphibious strike groups deployed in the far seas," Kennedy predicted.

That means the PLANMC would be reliant on air transport to distant contingencies, with the Y-20 being the most capable airlifter in the PLA Air Force. China could also employ chartered airliners (from Air China, for example) to deliver troops and to evacuate citizens.

Indeed, after Solomon Island riots in 2006 that also targeted the Chinese community, Beijing sent civilian chartered aircraft to evacuate citizens. The recent fielding of Y-20U air-to-air refueling aircraft will better enable China's air force to perform distant missions too.

It is quite clear from Chinese policy and commentary that the government plans for the PLA to be more involved in expeditionary and contingency operations. The obvious force of choice for such missions will be the PLAN Marine Corps. They may not have deployed to the Solomon Islands on this occasion, but it is only a matter of time before Chinese troops do deploy to some hotspot in Africa, Asia or Oceania to ostensibly protect Chinese interests. (ANI)

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