China has expanded its Marine Corps by adding a third brigade. Like the other two, the third marine brigade is an existing army brigade (the 77th Motorized Infantry Brigade) that will undergo a transformation consisting of new equipment, new uniforms, special training and learning how to carry out amphibious operations. Even with the third brigade the Chinese marines are still a small force. The three Chinese marine brigades contain a total of 14,000 troops, plus another 4,000 troops in support and training units. A year ago the marines had only 12,000 troops.
There also two army divisions trained to undertake amphibious operations and they 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 and for that reason Chinese brigades consider it an honor to be converted to marine units. This first occurred in 1980, with a second conversion in 1998.
In the West the nature of China's amphibious forces has been misunderstood for decades. Until the 1980s, the Chinese didn't have a distinct marine force, 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.
Marine brigades 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 following the example of what the British Royal Marines did during World War II and continued doing so ever since. .
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.
Initially Chinese marines were 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. Chinese marines are also being trained to seize islands Japan currently holds but China claims.
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.