According to a Sunday report by the Global Times, the PLA is in the middle of extensive war games in southern China, practicing its handling of amphibious assaults in particular.
In the most recent drills, ground troops from the PLA 74th Group Army, which is based in Guangdong Province, staged a beach assault in Hainan Province. The brigade sailed to the battleground overnight aboard their landing craft and attacked at dawn, with PLA Rocket Force units rehearsing bombardment of shore installations and supporting the infantry assault, the Global Times reported, citing a China Central Television (CCTV) report.
The outlet also noted the PLA Marine Corps practiced a “sea-crossing landing exercise” in Guangdong the week prior, which involved amphibious assault vehicles and assault craft.
However, the drills have also seen PLA forces practice repelling seaborne invasions, too. Last week, China Daily reported on an exercise in Guangdong Province in which a heavily outnumbered force known as the "Hard-boned Sixth Company" was forced to defend against a huge amphibious attack, which it did, despite some curveballs thrown by the PLA commanders overseeing the drill.
According to the Global Times, China's Maritime Safety Administration said the drills would also include two live-fire exercises: one on August 11 and 12, and another on August 16 and 17, in the East China Sea near Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province.
Unproven Rumors of Pratas Invasion
Sputnik News recently reported on how rumors appeared in Japanese media of a PLA dress rehearsal for invading several islands controlled by Taiwan would be held in the region this month. However, there is no evidence the ongoing drills are aimed at any particular country or goal, and they are more likely simply general practice for the country’s rapidly expanding marine forces.
Japan’s Kyodo News Agency first reported in May, citing unnamed insider sources, that the PLA would rehearse a naval invasion of the Pratas, or Dongsha, Islands, which sit off the coast of Guangdong Province. However, only last week did Kyodo present any evidence of the claim, citing a recent paper by Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University of the People's Liberation Army. However, Li soon stated his words were misinterpreted, and did not vindicate the news agency’s claims.
Both reports touched off a slew of speculation and hysteria in US and Taiwanese media, which reported the Kyodo claims as fact. In response to the most recent story, Taipei dispatched 200 soldiers from an elite unit to Pratas Island and armed its jets with live anti-ship missiles in anticipation of the drills.
An even more fervent piece appeared in Forbes on Friday, asking readers to “imagine being one of 200 Taiwanese marines staring down a Chinese invasion force.” In Forbes’ apocalyptic scenario, the horribly outnumbered Taiwanese troops must fight to the last man in a quixotic beau geste that will ostensibly buy US forces valuable time to arrive and fend off the Chinese hordes.
However, not only is it unclear that the PLA is rehearsing an invasion of Pratas, which is a 590-acre horseshoe-shaped atoll barely big enough to hold an airstrip, but it’s even less clear if Beijing is actually interested in doing anything to take the island by force. Even murkier still is if the United States military would actually risk a major war with China over a Chinese invasion of Taiwan island itself, far be it to assume US soldiers would come to the defense of little Pratas.
Instead, the drills are more likely an attempt to bring the huge new PLA Marine Corps up to speed with other marine units in other countries. In 2018, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on the Chinese military noted Beijing planned to more than triple the size of its marine corps from two brigades to seven in just three years’ time, bringing its strength to more than 30,000 soldiers. However, even this force is dwarfed by the US Marine Corps, which has some 186,000 persons under arms.
US Navy Brings New Provocations
The Hainan drills come amid an unprecedented US military presence in the region. Sputnik reported recently that a Chinese think tank recorded 67 US intelligence flights through the South China Sea in July alone, and Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Xinhua News Agency in an August 5 interview that “in the first half of this year alone, the US sent military aircraft there [to the South China Sea] more than 2,000 times.”
Several US aircraft carrier strike groups have also drilled in the region recently, with weeks of dual-carrier drills in the South China Sea, and then the USS Ronald Reagan was spotted in the East China Sea on Saturday. US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also flew to Taiwan on Sunday, the highest ranking US official to visit the island since the US broke off formal relations in 1979. That makes it an especially provocative trip, since the US now recognizes the People’s Republic of China as the sole legitimate representative of the Chinese people, and Beijing regards Taiwan as a rebellious province.
On Monday morning, Taiwanese officials said they “drove out” several Chinese aircraft that briefly crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait, which separates Taiwan from the mainland. While the eastern half of the strait is not technically owned by Taiwan, Taipei considers it to be its airspace nonetheless.