China launches naval assault vessel

China has launched a massive amphibious assault ship that will bring its armed forces closer to being capable of invading Taiwan.

Days before a military parade in Beijing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, the launch of the so-called landing helicopter dock underlines the growing prominence that Beijing’s unresolved ambitions towards its island neighbour have on the Communist party’s agenda.

China claims Taiwan as its territory although it has never ruled it, and threatens to take it by military force if Taipei resists unification indefinitely.

Although most Chinese and foreign analysts believe that China is extremely unlikely to launch an amphibious attack on Taiwan, concerns are growing that Beijing could stumble into a war over the island.

“Looking at various flashpoints in Asia including the Korean peninsula and the South China Sea, I have come to the conclusion that Taiwan is the most dangerous one,” said Brendan Taylor, a strategic studies professor at Australian National University.

In a speech in January that triggered a backlash in Taiwan, Chinese president Xi Jinping reiterated that Beijing would not drop its threat of military force against the island.

He has pledged to achieve “national rejuvenation”, a goal that is supposed to include getting Taiwan under Chinese control by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. But analysts have warned that Mr Xi could be under pressure to demonstrate “progress” on Taiwan much earlier — in 2022, when the Communist party leadership is due to confirm whether to allow him to stay on beyond the end of his second term.

Last week two of Taipei’s diplomatic allies switched allegiance to Beijing, bringing the number of nations that recognise Taiwan as a country down to only 15. The move was seen as an indication that Mr Xi is keen to show progress towards eliminating Taiwan as an independent entity.

While China’s People’s Liberation Army describes taking Taiwan as its “main strategic direction”, it has for decades lacked the capabilities needed to bring an invasion force across the Taiwan Strait and land on the island’s beaches.

The “Type 075” amphibious assault ship marks a big step towards changing that. It would allow the PLA navy to carry about 30 helicopters and transport hundreds of troops, making it a platform for beachhead warfare and airborne attacks. The vessel was built far faster than western military experts had expected.

A second Type 075 vessel is under construction and a third is planned. If they are commissioned after less than a year of sea trials, all three could be in service by late 2022, according to two western defence officials in China.

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