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).