Army, Navy joint military exercises at key strategic beach on Taiwan’s northwest coast
A Taiwan ROC Navy Tank landing ship maneuvered close to a beach in Taoyuan City identified as a key strategic landing beach if the PLA were to launch an invasion, during joint army-navy combat drills yesterday, March 8.
Zhuwei Beach, adjacent to Zhuwei Fishing Port, is one of 14 beaches labeled as “red beaches” in Ian Easton’s 2017 book, The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia. The beaches mentioned in Easton’s book include Jinshan (North), Jinshan (South), Linkou, Luzhu (including Zhuwei Beach), Emerald Bay, Fulong, Toucheng, Zhuangwei, Luodong, Yilan, Budai, Tainan, Linyuan, and Jialutang.
Zhuwei Beach provides an extremely valuable reward for any force that could successfully establish a beachhead.
Taiwan’s largest and busiest international air hub, Taoyuan International Airport is less than two kilometers inland across flat, fairly open country.
As one sits at Zhuwei Fishing Port at dawn there is no silence. Between the roar of aircraft powering up for takeoff and decelerating on landing at the airport, comes the constant hum from the West Coast Expressway (Highway 61). Trucks, many carrying containers to and from the Port of Taipei, flow in a constant north-south stream immediately behind the sand dunes of Zhuwei Beach. Ten kilometers inland is Highway 1, another of the main north-south road arteries. Beside the freeway is the Taoyuan Oil Refinery, Taiwan’s second-largest with a capacity of 200,000 barrels of crude oil per day. A military advance another 10 kilometers inland would effectively decapitate the capital city of Taipei from the rest of the island.
After seeing a Ministry of National Defense announcement in a China Times report last week I headed to the Port of Zhuwei before dawn on March 7 expecting to witness large-scale combat drills that would include a beach landing.
I had been to Zhuwei many times, but I had never seen the sea so calm. The waves from the turbulent Taiwan Strait that usually pound the beach were more like ripples on the shore of a tranquil lake. The sky was perfectly clear, with no wind, and the setting full moon reflected the light of the rising sun on flat, glassy water. An invading force couldn’t ask for better weather to launch a beach landing.
The MND announcement said the drills would occur 0500 to 0800, but after a long wait there was no sign of activity, nor did any photographers or reporters turn up. Hearing what sounded like gunfire to the north, I drove five kilometers to Linkou Beach, another one of the 14 red beaches which are the focus of this year’s annual Han Kuang military exercises.
A landing at Linkou Beach would give access to the Linkou Power Plant, a critical piece of infrastructure, but the steep, flat-topped terrain behind the beach and power station gives the defenders a strong advantage.
There was no sign of activity on Linkou Beach. Disappointed that I had failed to find any combat drills to watch and report on, I decided to make the best of the rest of the morning. My fishing gear is always in the car, and beside Linkou Beach I found a bait shop stocking plump live sandworms. I headed back to Zhuwei Fishing Port and tossed a line in the water.
Succeeding to catch only a couple of plastic bags, which seem to be the dominant fish species in Taiwan waters from the Danshui River south, I was about to pack up when at 7:45am three army trucks pulled up at the entrance to the beach.
A squadron of 25 men in black wetsuits unloaded an inflatable boat and headed to the beach. After launching the boat, the men attached themselves to a single rope and entered the water at intervals. Once deployed, the first man who entered the water was around 300 meters from the shore, while the last man stood about knee-deep in the breaking waves.
Flags were set up at 10 meter intervals, and the line of divers moved from one flag to another while keeping the line perfectly straight and perpendicular to the beach. Pondering on what purpose the exercise could serve, I concluded that they must be sounding out the beach for depth, sea bottom quality, and possible obstacles for a beach landing. Finally reaching the end of the beach around an hour later, the troops emerged from the water and left.
Day 2: Tank Landing Ship
Encouraged by sight of the divers sounding the beach, and armed with the information from the MND announcement that exercises would continue 0500 to 0700 Wednesday, March 8, the next day I arrived at Zhuwei Harbor at around 5:30am. The presence of a couple of guys carrying cameras with massive lenses was an encouraging sign that I would see actual combat drills after sunrise. The weather and sea conditions were again perfect for a beach landing.
Shortly before 7:00am a small group of soldiers in combat uniforms appeared on top of the sand dunes. Their camouflage uniforms blended perfectly with the sand and the sparse vegetation, but for some unknown reason, they were all wearing surgical masks that glowed in the morning light like fluorescent sniper targets.
The troops erected three sets of red target banners at either end and in the middle of the beach.
At 8:35am, a faint silhouette appeared on the hazy horizon, and 10 to 15 minutes later it could be clearly identified as a large naval vessel. At 9:02am, the ROC Navy 151st fleet amphibious Tank Landing Ship LST-232 maneuvered into position near the entrance of Zhuwei Fishing Port and dropped anchor.
LST-232 was originally the USS Manitowoc. First commissioned in 1970, the ship saw service in the Vietnam War and the Gulf War in the early 1990s. It was acquired by the ROC Navy in 1997 and recommissioned as the ROCS Chung-Ho.
I waited patiently, hoping that at any moment some boats would be launched from the Chung-Ho for an assault on the beach, but at 10:00am, LST-232 sounded its horn, raised anchor, and left.
I was not the only observer to feel disappointed:
“LST-232 slowly approached the sea off the beach and stopped for about an hour then drove away No beach drills were carried out, and the people who went to take pictures “returned empty-handed,”” a United Daily News reporter wrote.
The military exercises continue today, March 9.
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