The South China Sea, which China claims sovereignty of 90 percent of, is regarded as a potential major flashpoint with the West, with Beijing having fortified numerous islands there. The report, published on the website of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, was written by Matthew Funaiole, a Senior Fellow with the think tank's China Power Project, and Joseph Bermudez Jr, Senior Fellow for Imagery Analysis.
The pair based their conclusions on a series of satellite photographs showing the first of China's new Type 075 landing helicopter dock (LHD) ships embarking on sea trials in the sea.
The amphibious assault vessel left Hudong–Zhonghua Shipyard at the start of October and stayed in the Shanghai area for nearly three weeks before sailing south.
Towards the end of the month, it arrived some 1,250 nautical miles away, close to China’s southern coast.
Xi Jinping's China is testing its Type 075 ships in the South China Sea
Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang
The pictures show the Type 075 in the waters near Wuchuan on November 3 and moored at Yulin Naval Base on November 12.
Subsequent images date November 17 indicate it had been joined by a support group of at least five vessels.
Mr Bermudez and Funaiole wrote: "A critical component of China’s ongoing military modernisation is enhancing the capabilities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), especially those that may be leveraged to project power or called upon in a contingency in China’s near seas. On this front, the Type 075 considerably elevates China’s ability to transport, land, and support ground forces operating outside the Chinese mainland."
JUST IN: What exodus? EU's dreams of financial power-grab SHATTERED
The Type 075 was fitted out in Hudong Zhonghua shipyard
The vessel is roughly 237 meters in length and displaces between 35,000 and 40,000 tons, making it one of the largest amphibious assault ships in the world.
It features a full-length flight deck for helicopter operations, which in time could also serve as a platform for short takeoff and vertical landing aircraft.
A floodable well deck situated in the stern of the vessel will also allow hovercraft and other vehicles to disembark. It is believed the vessel will be capable of transporting approximately 900 troops.
China launches fearsome beach assault drills in chilling warning [VIDEO]
South China Sea: India lashes out at Beijing for 'eroding trust' [SPOTLIGHT]
South China Sea: US vows to stand up to Beijing as it tells allies 'we've got your back' [LATEST]
The vessel at Yulin Navy Base
The Type 075 at sea off Wuchuan
The analysts added: "It remains unclear how exactly the PLAN will employ the Type 075, but it is a flexible platform suited for a variety of roles.
"In addition to bolstering China’s ability to carry out amphibious operations, the Type 075 (in particular, the helicopters it carries) could be charged with conducting anti-submarine warfare and supporting anti-piracy missions.
"The Type 075 may also provide critical support to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts."
South China Sea crisis explained
Regardless of how many Type 075s the PLAN fields or how they are eventually employed, the new class of ship nonetheless represents a significant step forward for enhancing China’s amphibious capabilities
Several additional sea trials will take place prior to the Type 075 being commissioned into the People's Liberation Army Navy next year.
Two other Type 075s are currently under construction, with all three likely to be commissioned into the PLAN by 2025.
Mr Bermudez and Mr Funaiole added: "Regardless of how many Type 075s the PLAN fields or how they are eventually employed, the new class of ship nonetheless represents a significant step forward for enhancing China’s amphibious capabilities."
Speaking during a press conference in Beijing in August, Senior Colonel Ren Guoqiang warned the United States against ongoing operations in the South China Sea, and appeared to claim sovereignty over the entire waterway.
Fiery Cross Reef is one of the islands fortified by China
He said: "China has indisputable sovereignty over South China Sea islands and their adjacent waters, which has full historical and legal basis.
"At present, with the joint efforts of China and Asian countries, the situation in the South China Sea is generally stable, and positive progress has been made in relevant consultations."
In a clear indication that China was ready to act to defend what it regards as its territory, he added: "China urges the US to stop making false remarks, stop taking provocative military actions, and stop sowing discord among countries in the region.
"The attempts made by the US concerning the South China Sea can only make China more firmly defend its own sovereignty and security, and to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea."