China is reportedly developing long-range cruise missiles that can be fired from standard shipping containers loaded on merchant vessels. China is also converting heavy-lift civilian ships and roll-on roll-off (RORO) ferries to serve as de facto amphibious assault ships to support People’s Liberation Army (PLA) amphibious operations. While none of these activities are illegal per se, they do raise potential concerns under the law of naval warfare. Only warships can engage in offensive belligerent rights during an international armed conflict. Using merchant vessels to engage in belligerent rights would violate international law unless China first converts the vessels into warships in accordance with the rules set out in the 1907 Hague Convention VII. Using converted commercial ships to directly support military operations increases the risk that all Chinese-flagged container ships and RORO ferries will be targeted as military objectives given that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to distinguish between a converted and non-converted vessel.
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