The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) demonstrated the use of civilian ferries to launch a mock invasion of Taiwan during an August 2022 exercise. Using a custom-made ramp, the PLAN employed civilian roll-on/roll-off (RoRo) ferries to load amphibious assault craft on a Chinese beach near the Taiwan Strait, according to USNI News, the daily news service of the U.S. Naval Institute.
The CCP’s military has practiced using dual-use
amphibious ferries for years. This exercise, however, was larger and entailed launching the craft from RoRos at sea, which would enhance a would-be attack, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Tom Shugart, a defense analyst, told USNI News.
The drill could have delivered more than 80% of the PLAN’s heavy brigade equipment and over 10,000 personnel, Shugart wrote in an October 2022 article for War on the Rocks, a website for analysis and debate on strategy, defense and foreign affairs. In 2022, the PLAN also escalated the aggressiveness with which it conducts such exercises by sending warships beyond the median line in the Taiwan Strait and flying drones over islands governed by Taiwan, explained Shugart, a former submarine warfare officer and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
In the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, “civilian augmentation will be essential, if not providing the majority of the required sealift capacity,” Shugart, who has monitored Chinese military exercises for years, told USNI News.
“All this means that China could have the ability to conduct a successful invasion sooner than many would like to think. In response, Taiwan and its partners should take urgent action to deploy, at scale and in a survivable manner, the numbers of advanced anti-ship missiles and mines that will be required to stop dozens of landing ships — of all flavors — even if those ships are surrounded and screened by hundreds of escort ships and decoy vessels,” Shugart wrote in his War on the Rocks essay.
“Planners in Taipei and Washington should also decide in advance at what point they would be willing to start shooting at these ostensibly civilian targets. The Chinese military has an explicit goal of disrupting command and control well before an invasion commences, making that time a poor one for nuanced discussions of rules of engagement. China’s civilian roll-on/roll-off vessel fleet enhances the immediacy and the complexity of the invasion threat facing Taiwan. Washington should start preparing now to counter it,” Shugart wrote.
Using civilian ferries in an invasion is a manifestation of the CCP’s military-civilian fusion (MCF) strategy designed to propel the PLA’s modernization. MCF is part of a plan promoted by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping to enable the military to become the most technologically advanced in the world by 2049. As chair of the CCP’s Central Military Commission and the Central Commission for Military-Civil Fusion Development, created in 2017, Xi oversees the strategy’s implementation, including an array of approaches to bind military components to seemingly innocuous civilian activities. Those range from dual-use “research” expeditions, such as voyages of the Yuan Wang 5, which provide more surveillance and intelligence data than scientific information, to fishing fleets that function as a CCP military branch to prop up unjust territorial claims. Xi’s strategy also entails industrial espionage and theft of foreign military technologies, such as reportedly occurred with the CCP’s development of its fifth-generation fighter jet. The J-20 stealth fighter closely copied technologies from the United States’ F-22 Raptor and Joint Strike Fighter program, experts contend.
Xi and the CCP, however, could be placing the Chinese people at risk by advancing such an aggressive strategy, military analysts said. Under international laws and norms, civilians who should be considered noncombatants could be designated combatants if they are in combat zones or general areas of hostility and/or support the PLA under MCF, legal analysts explain. By engaging in hostilities, civilians may even be considered “unprivileged belligerents,” who incur the liability of combatant status but are not entitled to combatant privileges such as prisoner of war status, according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) Law of War Manual.
By showing intent to use RoRos to deliver troops and equipment during an invasion, the PLA is weakening the principle of distinction under the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) by obscuring crucial lines between warship and nonwarship, civilian and combatant, and civilian and military objects, analysts said. The LOAC, the international law regulating the conduct of armed hostilities, is derived from customary laws and treaties.
Indo-Pacific allies and partners want noncombatants to be protected in a conflict, war or other military operation. To mitigate civilian harm, upholding the LOAC’s principle of distinction is critical.
The PLA’s use of RoRos in training for amphibious invasions also sets a dangerous precedent by eroding legal principles established to protect civilians in conflicts.
Such MCF pursuits could be folly given the improbability of public-use ferries and other civilian systems surviving under fire, analysts predict. “Among the numerous critical components necessary for a successful cross-Strait landing, a failure to secure landing areas for follow-on forces in the initial assault would bring the entire endeavor to a screeching halt, likely inflicting severe costs on the part of the aggressor and resulting in a withdrawal,” Conor Kennedy, a research associate in the U.S. Naval War College’s China Maritime Studies Institute in Rhode Island, wrote in a 2021 analysis in The Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief.
Moreover, a PLAN invasion across the Taiwan Strait — even if it mainly uses military assets — will likely fail and produce heavy losses and unfavorable outcomes for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), as well as Japan, Taiwan and the U.S., according to a January 2023 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). The independent Washington, D.C.-based think tank developed a war game simulation of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which included an amphibious attack, and ran it 24 times.
“In most scenarios, the United States/Taiwan/Japan defeated a conventional amphibious invasion by China and maintained an autonomous Taiwan,” said the CSIS report, titled, “The First Battle of the Next War: Wargaming a Chinese Invasion of Taiwan.”
But all parties paid a high price. “The United States and its allies lost dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft, and tens of thousands of servicemembers. Taiwan saw its economy devastated. Further, the high losses damaged the U.S. global position for many years. China also lost heavily, and failure to occupy Taiwan might destabilize Chinese Communist Party rule,” the analysis surmised.
The report estimated that the PLA would lose 10,000 troops, 155 combat aircraft and 138 major ships. Its naval and amphibious forces would be in disarray, and tens of thousands of PLA soldiers would be captured.
Civilians in Taiwan, meanwhile, would be in immediate peril. “Once the war begins, it’s impossible to get any troops or supplies onto Taiwan, so it’s a very different situation from Ukraine where the United States and its allies have been able to send supplies continuously to Ukraine” since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, Mark Cancian, a CSIS senior advisor and simulation project leader, told news broadcaster CNN. Whatever the Taiwan people “are going to fight the war with, they have to have that when the war begins.”
Civilian Legal Protections
Decades ago, nations around the world designated targeting civilians in times of war an illegal activity. The Geneva Conventions, a series of four treaties signed between 1864 and 1949 and three subsequent protocols, establish the international legal standards for humanitarian treatment in war, including rights and protections afforded to noncombatants. One-hundred ninety-six nations signed and ratified the conventions. More countries have agreed to the Geneva Conventions than have agreed to any other international treaty. Most nations have also ratified the first and second protocols, which strengthen the protection of victims of international and non-international armed conflicts, respectively. International laws protecting civilians have changed little since the 1970s. Article 51, Additional Protocol 1, states that “the civilian population as such, as well as individual civilians, shall not be the object of attack. Acts or threats of violence the primary purpose of which is to spread terror among the civilian population are prohibited.”
Some nations and organizations have enhanced such protections. The U.S. DOD, for example, recently published a new Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan to expand measures that spare civilians from the effects of military operations. (See sidebar, Page 21.) The International Committee of the Red Cross conducted its own study on the notion of civilians taking direct part in hostilities, titled “Interpretive Guidance on the Notion of Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law,” which it published in 2009. The six-year-long study sought to clarify who is considered a civilian for the purposes of conducting hostilities; what conduct amounts to direct participation in hostilities; and the precise modalities according to which civilians directly participating in hostilities lose their protection against direct attack. The report’s recommendations have gained little traction, however, because many nations have not accepted the broader definitions and conclusions the Red Cross reached on protecting civilians.
Nations generally agree that civilians engaged in an attack against an adversary are participating directly in hostilities, as the law now stands. Moreover, civilian objects may become military objects under certain circumstances, as defined in Article 52, Additional Protocol 1, as well as the DOD Law of War Manual, legal analysts explain.
States carrying out an attack must distinguish combatants from civilians. But there is no clear obligation to mark or identify civilians. In practice, markings are available for protected buildings such as hospitals, cultural properties and civil defense structures. Often, aggressors ignore such markings. Russia, for example, is accused of indiscriminate attacks against Ukraine. The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) expressed “deep concern” and issued a reminder to Moscow that targeting noncombatants could be considered a war crime. “Civilians are being killed and maimed in what appear to be indiscriminate attacks, with Russian forces using explosive weapons with wide area effects in or near populated areas,” Liz Throssell, OHCHR spokesperson, said in February 2022. “These include missiles, heavy artillery shells and rockets, as well as airstrikes.” Russian shelling, some potentially from cluster bombs, hit schools, hospitals and nurseries just 15 days into the war, she said. Civilian deaths and injuries have continued throughout the war, but Russia denies targeting civilians. The International Criminal Court (ICC) launched an investigation in March 2022 into possible war crimes in Ukraine and then announced in March 2023 that it would pursue charges in two cases against Russia, the BBC reported. In mid-March 2023, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin for war crimes because of his alleged involvement in abductions of children from Ukraine, The Associated Press reported.
When it comes to its use of the RoRos, the PLA has not differentiated its ferries from civilian ferries, such as by painting the PLA vessels gray or affixing military markings. In addition, the CCP created a series of domestic laws and regulations beginning in 1995 that govern civil transport and essentially permit the PLA to obfuscate the RoRos’ role. Such rules, however, do not legitimize activities that are inconsistent with international law.
The PLA apparently envisions a bevy of military functions for RoRos, from delivering forces to mine placement, reconnaissance and deception, as retired U.S. defense intelligence officer Lonnie D. Henley detailed in a May 2022 edition of the China Maritime Report, published by the U.S. Naval War College. The PLA also intends to hide behind the civilian facade of the RoRos to portray domestic legitimacy and create a pretext for lodging accusations if a RoRo is attacked in conflict. In addition, the RoRos could be used to exploit the hesitancy of opposing forces to attack civilian vessels — even those engaged in belligerent activities, analysts said.
Protecting civilians from military operations should be a state’s main concern under the Geneva Conventions Article 57 (1), Additional Protocol 1, as most nations, including the PRC, have tacitly agreed. By advancing MCF, Beijing appears to be putting its citizens in harm’s way as a matter of government policy. Its use of RoRos in military exercises pushes international civilian protections down a slippery slope, analysts contend.
High Cost of Fusion, Hegemony
Many nations use civilians and civilian objects to augment military operations, either out of convenience or under duress. During World War I, the French placed military communication relay towers atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris to send and intercept critical messages. During World War II, the British used fishing boats and pleasure craft to withdraw troops from Dunkirk as German forces advanced. Australia has used civil contractors to support forces in Central Asia and the Middle East for peacekeeping missions. The U.S. has similarly used civilian contractors and commercial supply chains to support global military operations for decades.
In pursuit of hegemony, however, the CCP has sought to make civilian and military efforts indistinguishable, often obtaining key technologies by using Chinese civilians in nontransparent and illicit activities, including forced technology transfer, intelligence gathering and theft. “MCF threatens the trust, transparency, reciprocity, and shared values that underpin international science and technology collaboration and fair global business practices,” the DOD said in a 2020 brief.
The means by which the CCP has acquired technologies and assets — to include dual-use military facilities, bases and infrastructure — may also prompt suspicion of Chinese civilian noncombatants engaged in such enterprises during conflicts, analysts assert.
“The MCF is being interpreted as a war cry by the CCP to be combat-ready in 2022 and beyond — a call that the Party has made since soon after it assumed power in Mainland China in 1949. Developing the PLA into a world-class military by 2049 remains the primary aim,” Dr. Monika Chansoria, a senior fellow at The Japan Institute of International Affairs in Tokyo, wrote in a 2021 essay for JAPAN Forward, an English-language news website.
“Toward that end,” she predicted, “the developing ground realities of China’s activities and aggravations in the Himalayan borderlands, South China Sea and East China Sea are increasingly being determined by a military-civil fusion of military stealth, economics, and politics.”
Her insights appear to hold true well into 2023.
Given the level of CCP aggression and ambition, Indo-Pacific allies and partners must affirm the importance of upholding the Law of Armed Conflict in peacetime to ensure civilians enjoy protections to which they are entitled under international law should conflict arise. Otherwise, the PLA will attempt to exploit the law’s principles of distinction and honor to gain advantages. Civilians in China, Taiwan and elsewhere may pay the highest price.
Enhancing Protections for Civilians During Operations
The U.S. DOD’s Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan, released in August 2022, creates institutions and processes to improve strategic outcomes, optimize military operations and strengthen the military’s ability to mitigate civilian harm during operations. The DOD is working to:
Establish a center of excellence as a hub and facilitator for analysis, learning and training related to civilian harm mitigation and response (CHMR).
Provide commanders and operators with more information to better understand the civilian environment. Update doctrine and operation plans with guidance for addressing civilian harm across the spectrum of armed conflict so troops are prepared to mitigate and respond.
Develop standardized operational reporting and data management processes, including an enterprisewide platform, to improve how the DOD collects, shares and learns from data related to civilian harm.
Improve the assessment of and response to civilian harm resulting from military operations.
Incorporate CHMR into exercises, training and education across the joint force, and into security cooperation and operations with allies and partners.
Establish a steering committee co-chaired by senior military leaders to oversee and guide the plan’s timely and effective implementation.
Designate the secretary of the Army as the DOD’s joint proponent for CHMR.