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China Conducts Landing Ship Drills as Tensions Rise in S. China Sea

PLA Navy amphibious landing ships
PLA Navy / state media

Published Jun 24, 2024 6:42 PM by The Maritime Executive

 

China's navy is conducting amphibious drills in the South China Sea as tensions rise over control of the Philippine exclusive economic zone,  over five hundred nautical miles away from the Chinese mainland. 

Chinese state television broadcaster CCTV reports that three landing ships - Danxiashan, Laotieshan and Lushan - carried out a four-day combat drill at an undisclosed location in the South China Sea. The drills focused on search and rescue, live fire, damage control, ship-to-ship mooring, smokescreens, and anti-drone air defense operations - a modern addition reflecting the recent evolution of unmanned aviation. 

These small landing ships date to the last generation of PLA Navy shipbuilding, and are intended to deploy small numbers of troops or armored vehicles directly onto the beach. Danxiashan is a Type 072 tank landing ship, a Cold War-era design with a capacity to deliver up to 10 tanks. The Lushan is a smaller Type 073, capable of carrying five tanks. Both could be used for direct amphibious landings on reefs, atolls and other contested features in the Spratly Islands, giving China the ability to quickly seize undefended land features in Philippine waters. 

Philippines sends message of defiance

Last week, China Coast Guard personnel rammed and assaulted a Philippine resupply mission at Second Thomas Shoal, injuring eight Philippine soldiers and damaging several military RHIBs. One Philippine servicemember lost a thumb in the exchange, and images of Chinese troops wielding axes and knives circulated around the world. 

On Sunday, in a visit to the Armed Forces of the Philippines' Western Command headquarters, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said that he was proud of the way that the troops at Second Thomas Shoal responded to China's "intense provocation" with restraint. "You demonstrated to the world that the Filipino spirit is one that is brave, determined, and yet compassionate," he said. 

Marcos emphasized that his administration does not seek war with China, but will not back down when it comes to its internationally-recognized maritime boundaries. "In defending the nation, we stay true to our Filipino nature that we would like to settle all these issues peacefully. And in the performance of our duties, we will not resort to the use of force or intimidation," Marcos said. "But at the same time, we stand firm. Our calm and peaceful disposition should not be mistaken for acquiescence. . . . We will never be subjugated and oppressed by anyone."

Marcos presented the 73 troops who were involved in the resupply operation with an award, with special recognition for the servicemember who was injured in the fight. 

Though his administration has accused China of violating international law at Second Thomas Shoal, Marcos' ministers appeared to take steps to de-escalate this week. Though the China Coast Guard boarding personnel carried edged weapons, brandished their armament to threaten Philippine servicemembers, and stole two Philippine RHIBs, National Security Adviser (NSA) Secretary Eduardo Año emphasized that "we cannot classify it as an armed attack." 

"By international definition of an armed attack, it is the use of military force, an excessive use of force that could trigger collective self defense," Año said on Monday.