SINGAPORE — Two Chinese destroyers and a supply ship are on their way to join other foreign warships on anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia. This is a milestone for a navy that has long focused on coastal defense and lacked the capability to project power overseas.

It is likely to be the first of an increasing number of long-distance deployments as China takes its place among the top ranks of world navies alongside the fleets of the United States, Europe, Russia, Japan and India.

Beijing’s decision to follow the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (Britain, France, Russia and the U.S.) in sending warships to pirate-plagued waters off the Horn of Africa is the first time since the ruling Chinese Communist Party came to power in 1949 that the navy has been used to protect U.N. aid shipments, key maritime trade routes and Chinese vessels in foreign waters. The two Chinese missile-armed destroyers carry commandos and helicopters. They are expected to operate in the area for at least three months. Rear Admiral Xiao Xinnian, deputy chief of staff of the Chinese Navy, told journalists in Beijing that the length of the mission would depend on the U.N. mandate and conditions in the area.

According to the U.N.’s shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization, more than 120 pirate attacks have occurred in the waters of Somalia, which has not had an effective national government for nearly two decades and where fighting between rival groups has contributed to the lawlessness on land and at sea.

Somalia has the longest coastline of any African country and over 30 foreign vessels and 600 crew members have been affected by the pirate attacks. Earlier this year, they spread into the busy international shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden that link Asia to Europe via the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean Sea.

Seven ships owned by China or carrying Chinese crew or cargo have been attacked by pirates off the Somali coast this year. Recently, the crew of a Chinese ship fought off pirates in the Gulf of Aden with the help of international forces patrolling the area.

In April, China’s President Hu Jintao, who is also chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, inspected the naval base at Sanya on Hainan Island in the South China Sea where the flotilla now heading for the Horn of Africa left on Dec. 26. He called for a stronger navy and faster ship building.

If there had been any doubts about China’s plans to develop into a major naval power, Hu had dispelled them in December 2006. “In the process of protecting the nation’s authority and security and maintaining our maritime rights, the navy’s role is very important,” he said, adding that it should be ready to protect the country’s interests “at any time.”

A report to the U.S. Congress last month said that since the early 1990s, China has bought four Sovremenny-class destroyers armed with supersonic anti-ship missiles from Russia and deployed nine new classes of home-built destroyers and frigates. Mass production of advanced frigates has started and serial construction of destroyers is expected to follow. These will be part of the backbone of a modern Chinese battle fleet with increasingly global reach.

According to the U.S. Defense Department, China already has the largest force in Asia of principal surface combatants, submarines and amphibious warfare ships able to carry troops and armored vehicles. Its navy has 29 destroyers, 45 frigates, 26 tank landing ships, 28 medium landing ships, 54 diesel attack submarines, five nuclear attack submarines and 45 missile-armed coastal patrol craft.

Of these 232 vessels, 168 are in China’s East and South Sea Fleets. Japan, India and some Southeast Asian countries that have territorial disputes with China have been watching this buildup warily. They suspect that Beijing will one day be tempted to enforce its claims with military muscle. China’s recent statement that it is seriously considering building its first aircraft carrier will only intensify such concerns.

Although increasing steadily, China’s international naval power is still limited by many factors. One is that it has little experience of working with other forces or in sustaining its own military operations in waters and air space far from China. Its anti-piracy operation will help expand this experience.

Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, which includes much of the Indian Ocean, says he welcomes Chinese involvement and has promised American forces will work closely with the Chinese contingent and share relevant intelligence.

China’s neighbors in Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia are already alert to its growing military strength and have been adjusting policy accordingly. Most want a stable balance of power to be maintained, in which the U.S. continues to be a major component. As China’s armed forces, led by its navy, appear more frequently in the Indian Ocean, India and other countries in the area will have to make similar adjustments.

Engaging China in cooperative security to protect freedom of navigation and trade through international sea-lanes is a promising way forward because it is based on the mutual interest of many trading nations. With cooperation at sea may come greater trust between countries that have seen each other more as rivals than partners.

As China’s economy has expanded, so has its dependence on secure access to markets and natural resources, especially energy supplies. Over half of China’s oil is now imported and as much as 80 percent of it comes from the Middle East and Africa, nearly all past India and through the Malacca and Singapore straits in Southeast Asia.

If China’s turbo-charged growth continues, the International Energy Agency expects the country’s dependence on imported oil to rise to 64 percent of consumption by 2015 and 79 percent by 2030. If relations between China and Taiwan continue to improve, preventing Taiwanese independence may become less of a preoccupation for the Chinese military, including the navy.

Maritime trade protection (which can, of course, go hand-in-hand with military influence and power projection) could then emerge as a leading driver of Chinese military strategy and naval development.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.