Why China’s Gulf piracy fight matters
January 7th, 2014
08:36 AM ET

Why China’s Gulf piracy fight matters

By Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. Austin M. Strange is a research associate at the China Maritime Studies Institute. The views expressed are the authors’ alone.

December 26, Chairman Mao’s birthday, is always a significant date for China. But last month’s 120th anniversary came at a time when his legacy is increasingly subject to vigorous debate among the Chinese public, media, academia and even officialdom. And it also established a new landmark in contemporary Chinese history, an unprecedented milestone in Chinese foreign policy that Mao would surely be proud of: the 5th year anniversary of China’s naval anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

To honor the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s contributions to maritime security off Somalia, the China Maritime Museum, located in Shanghai, opened a special exhibit that runs into March, and which features photos and actual mission mementos. Chinese media outlets continue to roll out a flurry of articles commemorating the occasion. But what is the actual significance of Chinese anti-piracy activities? And what has China accomplished there over the past five years?

First and foremost, China’s naval foray into the Gulf of Aden, beginning in 2008, is a resounding response from Beijing to threats against its overseas interests. Chinese people and economic assets continue to disperse throughout the world at record pace nearly four decades after Deng Xiaoping’s opening up reforms. As a result, nontraditional security breaches outside of China, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks (and, in this case, maritime piracy) pose growing threats to Chinese national interests.

The ocean is at the center of China’s “Going out” policy: China relies on seaborne shipping for the vast majority of its trade, and PLAN is emerging as China’s most prominent service. Both Beijing’s calculated, resolute response to Somali pirate attacks on Chinese citizens, as well as its steadfast commitment to protecting Chinese and foreign ships over the last five years, signal China’s staunch commitment to ensuring safe conditions for Chinese overseas.

Statistics accumulated over the past five years make clear Beijing’s commitment to security sea lines of communication (SLOCs). According to state media, the PLAN has dispatched 15,000 personnel over 16 escort taskforce flotillas since 2008, averaging three per year. Taskforces, which usually consist of China’s most advanced frigates, destroyers and amphibious ships, have escorted 5,463 Chinese and foreign commercial ships – over 1,000 ships per year. PLAN forces have also thwarted more than 30 potential pirate attacks, rescued over 40 commercial ships, and escorted 11 vessels previously taken by pirates. Moreover, the fact that such information is actively recorded and publicized demonstrates the state’s desire to derive maximum domestic and international publicity benefits from the missions.

Besides safeguarding national interests, China’s investment in Gulf of Aden security continues to sharpen the abilities of PLAN personnel, platforms, and institutions. Operational achievements such as improved logistical supply chains, intra-navy coordination breakthroughs and greater focus on sailors’ morale are a few highlights of the mission that have real consequences for broader Chinese military development. Chinese sailors have, to put it bluntly, used Gulf of Aden operations to grow from “maritime rookies” to “confident seadogs.”

These lessons are readily apparent to China’s navy and the rest of the world. Yet the PLAN’s Gulf of Aden five-year anniversary is a milestone for reasons beyond the military domain. For those interested in China’s role in 21st century international society, five years off the coast of Somalia have allowed the opportunity to observe China in its first protracted, direct operational role within the context of international security outside of East Asia. The PLAN has embodied the spirit of “creative involvement” off Somalia, operating independent of but in parallel with Western and other naval forces.

More broadly, the missions signal that Beijing appears willing to cooperate with the United States and other naval powers to tackle nontraditional security challenges placing all sides “in the same boat.” Those calling on the Middle Kingdom to grow into a responsible stakeholder following persistent economic development and ascendancy in status can therefore cite Gulf of Aden anti-piracy as a modest but welcome example.

It may not be surprising to see states joining forces against nontraditional threats like piracy since there are clear economic and political incentives for cooperating rather than competing. But the fact that China continues to work actively with U.S., Japan and European navies off Somalia is unprecedented given choppy maritime relations between these states in the Asia-Pacific. The Gulf of Aden has played the foil to China’s assertive reputation in the contentious East and South China Seas, where Beijing’s behavior is increasingly perceived as counterproductive and downright dangerous.

True, while five years is a significant commitment, it would be unrealistic to suggest that the Gulf of Aden experience might directly impact maritime relations in other regions, such as the Yellow, East, and South China Seas – rife with tensions over core interests between Beijing and its neighbors. Yet China’s global maritime engagement stretches far beyond the waters of East Asia, and the world will expect more genuine contributions from Beijing as its stake in international security grows regardless of the state of affairs in China’s immediate neighborhood. Indeed, in the 21st century China’s foreign policy is being pulled in different directions as Beijing strives to balance traditional principles with pragmatic needs.

Ultimately, while tensions remain close to home, five years of uninterrupted anti-piracy deployments in distant seas reflects a qualitative improvement in Chinese global security engagement, a development that should be welcomed by the international community. If China and other states can look to the Gulf of Aden as a model for pragmatic cooperation, it might encourage a more active yet more transparent Chinese presence in other areas of international security.

This article draws on the author’s recent monograph, No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden, Naval War College CMSI China Maritime Study 10 (November 2013).

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Topics: China • Military

soundoff (22 Responses)
  1. JKHHKHKHHHJuytuyttutuHJK453255

    WE HAD NO ALTERNATIVE.
    NO TUVIMOS ALTERNATIVA.

    DERECHO CONCETUINARIO.
    CONCETUINARY LAW.

    January 7, 2014 at 8:49 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    Puntland, an arid region of north-east Somalia, which declared itself an autonomous state in August 1998 after enduring bitter conflict, has been making world headlines with an upsurge in pirate attacks on international shipping in the Indian Ocean. Since 2005, the region has become famous as the hub of a burgeoning piracy operation in the seas around Somalia, particularly in the Gulf of Aden, where the pirates prey on key international shipping lanes to and from the Suez Canal. The US, France, Britain and China, have deployed warships to the seas around Somalia to protect shipping.

    January 8, 2014 at 7:41 am | Reply
  3. henry winn

    Like everything else, when China committed to piracy fight in the Gulf it already had its eyes set on using that well publicized training opportunity to cover up much darker execution of South China Sea expansionist policy. As always, don't expect China to ever provide free service.

    January 8, 2014 at 8:14 am | Reply
    • Maersk

      Should people expect you to provide free kwok zucking service? I guess not.

      January 8, 2014 at 10:56 pm | Reply
      • 2Bob

        Leave the Kwok's out of it. They are a very nice family.

        January 9, 2014 at 11:39 pm |
    • W Leung

      One can please some people some of the time Can't please all the people all of the You just can't WINN

      January 12, 2014 at 7:07 pm | Reply
  4. L Sullican

    LOL, at first I thought this would be a story about China's own act of piracy in the South China Sea,
    but it seems China can play both pirate in the South China Sea area, and also play the hero"Sheriff of Aden".

    January 10, 2014 at 9:40 am | Reply
    • W Leung

      Are you talking about the good cop and the bad cop

      January 12, 2014 at 7:10 pm | Reply
  5. Roja

    China's act of piracy? They didn't even know about the maritime borders and all the rules that come with it when the zones were drawn up. All they are doing is playing the game having learnt the rules, or more importantly how to bend them to benefit them like the US has done so well. Declare a massive area is yours, start using it and acting like you own it, then go to international arbitration and make concessions from your clear over reach. They are playing it well, is all.

    January 11, 2014 at 7:44 am | Reply
  6. FrmrMrine

    The People's Liberation ARMY Navy?? That's a sad name for a maritime military force. Sad, sad, sad.

    January 11, 2014 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  7. W Leung

    If The People's Liberation ARMY Navy are under the command of the Joint chief of staff It will be Go, go, go

    January 12, 2014 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  8. J Fusco

    Reblogged this on From the Bridge Blog.

    January 14, 2014 at 10:22 am | Reply

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