Potential Military Implications of Pingtan Island’s New Transportation Infrastructure

Introduction

Within the last decade, Pingtan Island (平潭岛, Pingtan Dao), which is the nearest territory to the Republic of China (ROC or Taiwan) controlled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC or China), has transformed from a relative backwater into a significant transportation hub. The opening of the Pingtan Strait Road-Rail Bridge (平潭海峡公铁大桥, Pingtan Haixia Gong-Tie Daqiao)—first to automobile traffic in October 2020 and then to high-speed rail traffic in December 2020—marked the island’s connection to the PRC’s integrated transportation system (综合交通运输体系, Zonghe Jiaotong Yunshu Tixi) (People’s Daily, October 9, 2020; CGTN, December 27, 2020). Beijing sees developing Pingtan’s transportation infrastructure as facilitating deeper engagement between the PRC and Taiwan. It intends for this increased engagement to promote the integration and eventual unification of ROC-controlled territories with mainland China (Fjbt.gov.cn, January 31, 2019)

Consistent with the PRC’s past use of psychological and media or “public opinion” warfare (part of the Chinese military’s long-standing “Three Warfares” formulation for political warfare), state media and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have both highlighted the potential dual-use applications of civilian transportation infrastructure on and around Pingtan (81.cn, May 26, 2014).[1] One retired military commander has even suggested that the PLA should access the territory via one of its newly constructed bridges and conduct artillery exercises to improve combat readiness for a Taiwan contingency (Global Times, October 21, 2016). At the same time, exploiting Pingtan’s new infrastructure to exert military pressure on Taiwan contradicts Beijing’s rebranding of Pingtan (the site of historic military exercises during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis) as an important space for the “peaceful development of cross-Strait relations” (Taihainet.com, December 13, 2013; Xinhua, November 3, 2014).

Background

The establishment of the Pingtan Comprehensive Pilot Zone (平潭综合实验区, Pingtan Zonghe Shiyan Qu) in July 2009 heralded a wave of development initiatives. In 2011, the State Council issued a development plan for the Western Taiwan Strait Economic Zone (海峡西岸经济区, Haixia Xi’an Jingji Qu) and incentives to build up Pingtan were boosted by President Xi Jinping’s infrastructure-driven Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. All three of these  programs—so far as they relate to Pingtan—share the goal of using transportation infrastructure to convert the island into a leading conduit for trade, investment and travel between China and Taiwan (Gov.cn, May 14, 2009; China News, November 3, 2015). In the past decade alone, the push to build out Pingtan’s transportation infrastructure has resulted in several new and improved linkages, with still more in the construction or planning stages.

Pingtan by Land, Sea and (Eventually) Air

Spanning 10.15 miles, the Pingtan Strait Road-Rail Bridge is the world’s longest cross-sea road-rail bridge. A high-speed rail line has reduced travel time between Pingtan and Fuzhou, the provincial capital of Fujian,  from two hours to approximately half an hour (Xinhua, September 25, 2019). The bridge directly connects Pingtan to the Beijing-Taipei Transportation Corridor via the G3 Beijing-Taipei Expressway and Beijing-Taipei high-speed railway; and indirectly connects the island to the Coastal Transportation Corridor and the Beijing-Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan Transportation Corridor via Fuzhou.[2]

The first bridge between the island and greater Fujian—the Pingtan Strait Bridge (平潭海峡大桥, Pingtan Haixia Daqiao) had opened a decade earlier (Xinhua, December 25, 2010). A second bridge opened in June 2014. The twin bridges are 25 meters apart and together link southern Pingtan Island and Donghan Town, Fuqing County (Nhaidu.com, June 17, 2014). The Pingtan Comprehensive Pilot Zone Planning Bureau also plans to add two underwater road-rail tunnels that will connect Pingtan and Fuqing by 2035. One will support an intercity rail line and the other will provide passage for a freight rail line.[3]

Image: A map of the Pingtan Comprehensive Pilot Area’s comprehensive transportation plan (Image Source: Pingtan.gov)

CREEC (Guangdong) Harbor Survey and Design Company, a state-controlled mixed ownership enterprise, has produced a design for a Pingtan-Hsinchu [Taiwan] railway ferry terminal consisting of two berths for railway ferries and one berth for railway ferry maintenance.[4] As of the time of writing, this project has not received official approval. But Beijing has long planned to build a cross-Taiwan Strait undersea tunnel from Pingtan to Hsinchu, so a railway ferry could presumably augment or replace that planned transportation link (China Brief, August 31, 2020).

In March 2019, the island’s Jinjing Port Area passed inspection to become a national first-class port (Ptnet.cn, March 22, 2019). Three of Jinjing’s seven planned multi-purpose berths have already been constructed, and one is designed to eventually handle international cruise liners (Ptnet.cn, December 20, 2018). Two passenger-cargo “ro-ro” (roll-on/roll-off) terminals are also planned for the port (Fjsen.com, April 17, 2019). A 10,000-ton passenger-cargo ro-ro terminal in Aoqian District began operating a high-speed ferry service between Pingtan and Taichung, Taiwan in November 2011; it later expanded its services to include high-speed passenger and cargo transport to the cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung, Taiwan (Fznews.com.cn, May 17, 2013; Xinhua, July 11, 2019). Additionally, Pingtan is expected to construct a commuter airport to support regional passenger and cargo transport by 2030 or 2035 at the latest (Fznews.com.cn, May 21, 2019). In the meantime, the island’s new high-speed rail line provides quick access to and from the Fuzhou Changle International Airport (Fjsen.com, December 27, 2020).

Military-Civil Fusion

In accordance with Beijing’s military-civil fusion (MCF) (军民融合, junmin ronghe) strategy, the new transportation infrastructure constructed on and around Pingtan has been built with military mobility in mind. To give one example, the eight-lane, two-way ring road that encircles the island was built with several exits to military facilities to enhance troops’ rapid response capabilities (China National Defense News, January 25, 2016). Military officials and defense experts have reportedly participated in the planning for the island’s development, and the military helped construct the island’s high-speed ro-ro ferry terminal. Pingtan’s highways, railway station and airport have all been designed with the consideration of military needs such as wartime protective camouflage; resistance to destruction and repair and restoration (China National Defense News, April 1, 2015; Fznews.com.cn, December 9, 2018).

State-owned enterprises that have actively participated in MCF elsewhere are also helping to transform Pingtan into a transportation and logistics hub. For example, Alfai Southern Shipyard (Panyu Guangzhou), a subsidiary of China State Shipbuilding Corporation and China COSCO Shipping Corporation, was contracted in February 2019 for the design and construction of the “Pingtan Star” ferry (Fujian Daily, February 22, 2019). Pingtan Star will be Asia’s largest aluminum alloy high-speed ro-ro passenger ship when it begins transporting passengers, automobiles and cargo between Pingtan and Taiwan (COSCO, February 25, 2019). It’s worth mentioning that the Chinese military has used other COSCO ships (including ferries) in training exercises (81.cn, September 28, 2016).

In 2018, the PRC’s National Development and Reform Commission and Ministry of Transportation jointly designated Pingtan as a national trade service logistics hub. Since then, the island has begun developing large logistics facilities, including several warehouses, to accommodate an anticipated increase in goods transiting through the territory (Ptnet.cn, August 31, 2018). As trade flowing through Pingtan increased from approximately 5 billion RMB ($740 million) in 2017 to more than 13 billion RMB ($1.9 billion) in 2020, major Chinese logistics firms such as SF Express and China Postal Express & Logistics Company—which have established strategic cooperation agreements with the PLA—also set up operations on the island (Pingtan Times, March 24, 2019; FJDaily.com, January 22; Pingtan Times, December 25, 2018; China Youth Online, October 26, 2017).

Military Implications of New Transportation Infrastructure

Early in the development of the Pingtan Comprehensive Pilot Zone, a Taiwan defense expert identified how Chinese armed forces could use the island’s strategic position to enhance their power projection capabilities, expand Beijing’s control of air and sea space in and around the Taiwan Strait and create a forward base to invade Taiwan (ROC Ministry of Justice Investigation Bureau, June 2012). More recently, defense analysts have pointed out that ROC forces will be able to hold Pingtan and its environs at risk with U.S.-supplied missiles approved for sale to Taiwan in October 2020, potentially diminishing the military utility of Pingtan’s transportation infrastructure (Taipei Times, December 28, 2020; SCMP, October 15, 2020; Defense News, October 23, 2020). Regardless of the actual value of Pingtan’s infrastructure for combat, China’s publicizing of its transportation infrastructure’s suitability for military operations sends a strong signal about Beijing’s ability to deter Taiwan from taking further steps toward independence.[5]

In 2016, retired Lieutenant General Wang Hongguang, former deputy commander of the Nanjing Military Region, wrote an op-ed proposing specific measures that the Chinese military could take to strengthen its combat readiness for a Taiwan contingency. One of Wang’s more provocative proposals was that People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) fighter jets could start conducting drills near the median line of the Taiwan Strait (Global Times, October 21, 2016). In March 2019, PLAAF fighter jets traversed the median line for the first time in two decades; the PLAAF has made more incursions since then (Radio Taiwan International, April 1, 2019; Global Times, August 10, 2020). Wang also proposed that Chinese forces could conduct live-fire artillery exercises from Pingtan. He noted that the island is now accessible by the Pingtan Strait Bridge, which he claimed is conducive to the rapid deployment of long-range multiple rocket launcher units (Global Times, October 21, 2016).

The Chinese military has for many years prioritized the “multi-dimensional delivery/transport” (立体投送/运输, liti tousong/yunshu)—i.e. road, rail, sea and air transport— of combat forces and equipment to strategic locations and military training bases along China’s periphery (People’s Daily, October 9, 2009; Xinhua, August 29, 2019). It has also frequently used civilian transportation and infrastructure to complete long-distance deliveries during cross-military region/theater exercises (PLA Daily, April 9, 2012; PLA Daily, September 5, 2014; 81.cn, March 21, 2018).

Zhangzhou (漳州) City, located on the eastern coast of Fujian Province, is home to one of China’s four major amphibious assault training areas. Another one sits on Pingtan. Like Pingtan, Zhangzhou has recently built up its transportation infrastructure, which according to Chinese state media satisfies the military’s needs for multi-dimensional delivery and the rapid wartime mobility of troops (PLA Daily, December 29, 2015; China National Defense News, November 13, 2015). Beijing has made clear that it intends for its national integrated transportation network—with integrated transportation hubs and corridors—to support “social stability” (社会稳定, shehui wending), “unification of the motherland” (祖国统一, zuguo tongyi) and national security.[6]

Image: A map of the PRC’s national integrated transportation corridors and integrated transportation hubs (Image Source: PRC State Council)

Chinese armed forces have used components of the national transportation corridors in military exercises before (China National Defense News, October 9, 2014). For example, the Coastal Transportation Corridor that runs from Tongjiang, Heilongjiang Province in the north to Sanya, Hainan Province in the south has been featured in several long-distance military transport exercises (PLA Daily, October 10, 2012; China National Defense News, August 28, 2016; 81.cn, November 20, 2017).

Conclusion

The PRC has publicized how its improved transportation network facilitates PLA deployments to its coastline opposite Taiwan. This is an example of China’s media and psychological warfare against the ROC. As cross-Strait tensions have risen in recent years, the PRC has revived old methods for signaling its displeasure with Taipei and exerting pressure on the people of Taiwan. It has invented new ones as well: expanding one flight route so that commercial airliners now fly within four miles of the Taiwan Strait median line; ordering warplanes to circumnavigate Taiwan on a regular basis and allowing Chinese sand dredgers to intrude into ROC waters around the Matsu Islands (CSIS.org, March 14, 2018; Taipei Times, August 14, 2017; Reuters, February 5).

Although Pingtan’s transportation infrastructure offers China new tools for pressuring Taiwan, Beijing could jeopardize the territory’s role as a center for cross-Strait engagement by using them. For this reason, actually using said infrastructure to more directly coerce Taiwan could be an effective but potentially very costly option (Institut Montaigne, September 15, 2020).

The author is grateful to Lt. Col. Dennis Blasko (U.S. Army, retired) for his suggestions and comments on an initial draft of this article. Any errors are solely the author’s own responsibility.

Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington D.C.-based research analyst and non-resident senior fellow at Taiwan Security Research. His main research interests include U.S.–Taiwan relations, cross-strait relations and East Asian regional security. His work has appeared in The Diplomat, Newsweek, The Interpreter, Asia Times, E-International Relations and TSR Weekly Report. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @KrisAMcGuire.

Notes:

[1] See: “China: The Three Warfares”, U.S. Department of Defense, May 2013, http://images.smh.com.au/file/2014/04/11/5343124/China_%2520The%2520three%2520warfares.pdf.; Peter Mattis, “China’s ‘Three Warfares’ In Perspective,” War on The Rocks, January 30, 2018, https://warontherocks.com/2018/01/chinas-three-warfares-perspective/ .; and Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao, “The People’s Liberation Army General Political Department: Political Warfare with Chinese Characteristics,” Project 2049, October 14, 2013, https://project2049.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/P2049_Stokes_Hsiao_PLA_General_Political_Department_Liaison_101413.pdf.

[2] See: “Integrated Transportation Network Medium- and Long-term Development Plan” (综合交通网中长期发展规划, Zonghe Jiaotong Wang Zhong-Changqi Fazhan Guihua), National Development and Reform Commission, November 2007, https://www.ndrc.gov.cn/fggz/zcssfz/zcgh/200906/W020190910670434985047.pdf. and “The State Council on The Issuance of The ‘Thirteenth Five-Year Plan’: Modern Integrated Transportation System Development Plan Notice” (国务院关于印发“十三五”现代综合交通运输体系发展规划的通知, Guowuyuan Guanyu Yinfa “Shisanwu” Xiandai Zonghe Jiaotong Yunshu Tixi Fazhan Guihua De Tongzhi), State Council of The People’s Republic of China, 2017, http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/content/2017-02/28/content_5171345.htm.

[3] “Pingtan Comprehensive Pilot Zone Master Plan (2018-2035): Plan Blueprint” (平潭综合实验区总体规划 (2018-2035): 规划图纸, Pingtan Zonghe Shiyan Qu Zongti Guihua (2018-2035): Guihua Touzhi), Pingtan Comprehensive Pilot Zone Planning Bureau, May 20, 2019, http://www.pingtan.gov.cn/jhtml/ct/ct_2930_80431.

[4] CREEC (Guangdong) Harbor Survey and Design Company website, Accessed February 16, 2021, http://www.creechd.com/cn/case_show.php?id=9 .

[5] Blasko, Dennis J., The Chinese Military Today: Tradition and Transformation for the 21st Century, 2nd Edition, (New York: Routledge, 2012), 123.

[6] See: Note 2, “Integrated Transportation Network Medium- and Long-term Development Plan”