China has been regularly upgrading its amphibious forces for three decades and the U.S. has taken to paying a lot more attention to what the Chinese are doing here. China has had amphibious ships and soldiers trained to operate from them since the 1950s. A “marine regiment” was organized in 1953, and expanded into a division but was disbanded by 1960. The current “Marine Corps” was officially established in 1981, after several years of planning, recruiting, and training. These marines were meant to handle the most difficult landing operations so that army troops (trained to use amphibious craft) could follow.
Currently the Chinese marines are a small force. The actual “marines” are 12,000 infantry. There also two army divisions trained to undertake amphibious operations and who regularly train with the marines. This is not, in a Western sense, a "marine corps" but the Chinese “marines” have come to be considered elite troops. In the West the nature of China's amphibious forces has been misunderstood for decades.
Until the 1980s, the Chinese didn't have a marine corps, only army units that were trained to conduct amphibious operations. China didn't start building its own large amphibious ships until the 1980s, at the same time they organized marine brigades. There are currently two Chinese marine brigades, containing a total of 10,000 troops, plus another 2,000 troops in support and training units.
The marines are equipped with amphibious armored vehicles and self-propelled artillery, anti-tank, and anti-aircraft missiles. All of these marines are volunteers and undergo strenuous training. Each brigade also has a reconnaissance battalion, with several hundred men (and thirty women) trained to use scuba gear to get ashore and look around. These are actually special operations troops and are carefully selected and trained. In Western terms, the Chinese marines share some characteristics with both the U.S. Marine Corps and the British Royal Marine Commandos in terms of training and intended capabilities. The Chinese appear to be going more for their marines to be considered special operations troops. The U.S. Marine Corps is doing the same thing.
Interestingly, the Chinese marines are not stationed where they could be used for an invasion of Taiwan but in the south, where they can grab disputed islands in the South China Sea. While these islands, which control fishing and potential oil fields, are considered disputed, China has already laid claim to some of them by force. In 1974, China fought a naval battle with Vietnam off the Paracel islands. In 1988, China and Vietnam fought another naval battle, off the Spratly islands. Both of these battles were followed by Chinese troops establishing garrisons on some of the islands. In 1992, Chinese marines landed on Da Lac reef, in the Spratly Islands. In 1995, Chinese marines occupied Mischief Reef, which was claimed by the Philippines.
Most recently (September) several hundred marines were sent to the Mediterranean aboard one of its three Type 071 19,000 ton LPD amphibious ships. The LPD remained off the coast of Syria for a while, as a show of support for the beleaguered Assad dictatorship. This is the first time China has sent an amphibious ship this far from home.
The Chinese marines are trained and equipped for raiding, not for large scale landings against a defended shore. The latter task is apparently left to army divisions that have been drilled on how to get on, and off, amphibious ships. While the Chinese marines might play a part in a Taiwan invasion, their full time job appears to be in the South China Sea, where the Chinese stand ready to grab more islands, if the economic advantages seem high enough. The navy supplies the amphibious ships and any air support (fixed wing aircraft and helicopters) needed. Detachments of marines have accompanied the warships China sends to the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia.
The marines have been practicing long range operations more frequently of late. Last March a Chinese task force (a destroyer, two frigates, and a Type 071 amphibious ship) left a southern Chinese port for a South China Sea training exercise. This included landing marines and combat vehicles on small islands using hovercraft. This is just the sort of thing China threatens to do if anyone opposes their claims (to all the uninhabited islets and reefs in the South China Sea) and establishes more manned outposts. China is making it clear how they will deal with such “intrusions.” One of these landing exercises took place 80 kilometers off the coast of Malaysia and 1,800 kilometers from mainland China.
Chinese designed Jingsah II class LCACs (Landing Craft Air Cushion or hovercraft) were used on the Type 071s. These 70 ton hovercraft can carry 15 tons of cargo, personnel, or vehicles. The first Jingsah IIs entered service in the 1980s, but it was two decades before a lot of them appeared. That was done in order to equip the Type 071 ships.
The U.S. Navy has come to view the Chinese marines as tip of the spear for any Chinese amphibious operations. While China has other special operations forces, only the marines regularly practice operations at sea. The marines have been used against Somali pirates and to provide security for Chinese aid efforts in dangerous areas. As China practices to use military force in the South China Sea or other disputed offshore areas, the marines always tend to be present. So American intel tracks the Chinese marines carefully, for these amphibious troops will often be the first in if China decides to fight.