Taiwan flags Chinese civilian car carriers as threat to national security

Taiwan’s Ministry of National Defense is cooperating with the National Coast Guard Administration and National Police Agency to jointly monitor the movements of Chinese commercial car carriers docking in Taiwan, and vehicle ferries operating in and around the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan’s top military intelligence unit, the National Security Bureau, reported to the Legislative Yuan May 23 on the potential risks of the roll-on/roll-off ships to Taiwan’s security, saying that the MND is cooperating with the coast guard and police to target ro-ro ships that regularly dock in Taiwan and are capable of carrying military personnel and equipment.

a Chinese car ferry loaded with tanks
Not just a car ferry: The passenger-cargo ro-ro ship “China Fuxing” with a full load displacement of 45,000 tons can carry 350 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, anti-tank missile launchers, off-road vehicles and other equipment. (CC 
TV )

The large merchant fleet of vehicle carriers operating as freight and ferry services have been flagged as a national security risk in recent years, with the PLA blurring the distinction between military and civilian vessels, and using the ships in military exercises, including a mass amphibious landing drill simulating an attack on Taiwan in August 2022.

“By demonstrating intent to use commercial ROROs during an amphibious invasion, the PLA is eroding the principle of distinction under the law of armed conflict (LOAC) and obscuring crucial lines between warships and non-warships, civilians and combatants, and civilian objects and military objectives,” a January 2023 report by US Indo-Pacific Command stated.

An analysis published in Maritime Executive last month noted that China’s state-owned shipping company COSCO has provided the People’s Liberation Army with transport support for over 25 years. In 2016, the shipping giant reported that it had modified some of its ferries in response to “national defense requirements.” These modifications included ramp extensions for launching and retrieving amphibious armor at sea, and for beach landings. While some ships are capable of carrying a full battalion of soldiers and equipment, larger vessels could carry up to two full battalions, according to author Conor Kennedy’s estimation.

Different types of roro vessels flagged by Taiwan's navy
Various roll-on/roll-off “civilian” car ferries and commercial carriers identified in a Taiwan navy report in 2019.

Chinese shipping companies and shipbuilders have been quite open about the dual military-civilian use of their ships. The Chang Da Long was described by its builder as having a “military heart” with a “civilian shell,” according to an article by Thomas Shugart, Senior Fellow at the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security.

The National Security Bureau’s report to the Legislative Yuan, Monday, explained the risks posed by the ships and said that the MND is coordinating with the CGA and NPA to develop countermeasures to the potential threat, including watching for deviations from normal commercial routes, or approaches from surrounding waters.

The CGA will strengthen monitoring large civilian RoRo ships via radar and AIS, watching for any abnormal movements. Regarding China-registered RoRo cargo ships docking in Taiwan, the Maritime Port Bureau will use the established MTNet (Maritime Network) system to carry out inspections and notify authorities and military units of any suspicious activity.

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