Three ships of the Chinese Navy------ the missile-armed destroyers "DDG-171 Haikou" and "DDG-169 Wuhan" and the suply ship "Weishanhu"---are reported to have sailed from the Yalong Bay naval base on the Hainan Island on January 26,2008, on a three-month mission toundertake anti-piracy patrol for the protection of Chinese ships and crew from attacks by Somali pirates. This will be the first time ships ofthe Chinese Navy will be operating in far-away waters outside the Pacific on defensive missions----though only against non-State actors. The three-ship task force will have a Chinese special forces unit (strength not known) and two helicopters.
2.The Chinese announcement came shortly after nine pirates attacked "Zhenhua 4", a Chinese cargo ship with 30 crewmen, in Somaliwaters on December 17,2008. The Chinese ship, owned by the China Communications Construction Co, was rescued by two warships and ahelicopter of Malaysia.Twenty per cent of the 1,265 Chinese ships that have passed through the Somali waters in the first 11 months of thisyear, have faced pirate attacks, according to a spokesman of the company. Seven of these ships were hijacked, and the pirates were stillholding a Chinese fishing ship and 18 sailors.China's decision came after the UN Security Council, in an unanimous vote on December16,2008, gave nations fighting against pirates in the Gulf of Aden a one-year mandate to act inside and off Somalia.
3.The State-owned Xinhua news agency quoted Wu Shengli, the Commander of the Chinese Navy, as telling the 1000 sailors of the threeships at a function before the Task Force set sail as follows: "It's the first time we go abroad to protect our strategic interests armed withmilitary force.It's the first time for us to organise a naval force on an international humanitarian mission and the first time for our navy toprotect important shipping lanes far from our shores."
4. The Chinese task force will be joining more than a dozen warships from Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Denmark, Saudi Arabia, France,Russia, Britain, Malaysia and the US, who have already undertaken an anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden. With China sending its ships, theNavies of all the five permanent members of the UN Security Council will now be co-operating in the fight against piracy. Japan has alreadyannounced its intention of sending one of its ships too.
5.Even though Admiral Timothy Keating, the Commander of the US Pacific Command in Hawaii, has welcomed the Chinese decision andexpressed the hope that the operations of the US and Chinese naval ships side by side in the Somali waters might lead to a resumption ofthe military-military contacts between the two countries, which are in a state of suspension since October, 2008, due to Chineseunhappiness over the supply of US military equipment to Taiwan, the US cannot but be concerned over the long-term implications of theChinese naval presence in an area of strategic importance to the US.
6.Admiral Keating was quoted by the media as saying immediately after the Chinese announcement of its decision to send the ships onanti-piracy patrol: "China's plans to join the fight against piracy off the coast of Somalia could lead to a renewal of military exchangesbetween Beijing and Washington. I think this could be a springboard for a resumption of dialogue between PLA forces and US PacificCommand forces."
7.Commenting on the US Admiral's statement, Peng Guangqian, a Chinese strategic expert working in the Chinese Academy of MilitarySciences, was quoted as saying on Decemmber 22,2008, that the armed forces of China and the US would be cooperating for the first timein a real security environment off Somalia's coast. He added: "The military cooperation between the two sides should be based oninternational laws and codes, mutual respect and equal consultation. Only this way can bilateral military cooperation proceed steadily."
8. The Chinese decision has been widely welcomed by Chinese Internet chatters and bloggers as a moment of great pride for China. It hasalso been welcomed by the community of Chinese strategic experts;. Typical among the comments are:
Li Wei, Director of the Anti-terrorism Research Centre of the China Institute of Contemporary Relations: "It is a huge breakthrough in China's concepts about security.It sends a strong political message to the international community that China with its improved economic and military strength is willing to play a larger role in maintaining world peace and security."
Prof. Li Jie, a naval researcher: "Joining other countries to fight Somali pirates would be a very good opportunity for the Chinese Navy to get into the thick of the action. Apart from fighting pirates, another key goal is to register the presence of the Chinese Navy.If the navy's special forces join in, that will be in order to counter the pirates' attempt to board other ships. In general, the mission is to deter pirates, because that is the basic objective."
Prof Pang Zhongying at Renmin University of China: "Joining other fleets in the Somali waters will contribute to international security. Earlier, Chinese army personnel joining UN peacekeeping missions were engineering and medical staff, police, or peacekeepers. But now, dispatching naval ships would not be a problem as the menace of Somali piracy has become a common threat to the whole international community.China's image as a responsible sovereign nation will improve by participating in such missions.The number of troops in any such mission would not be high. It would be on a limited scale initially." .
9. It is not yet clear which port the Chinese ships will be using for refuelling and re-stocking purposes during the three months they will beaway from China, but reports from Pakistani sources say that the Pakistan Navy has already offered the use of the Karachi port for thispurpose. The Gwadar port is not presently under consideration for this purpose since part of the construction has not yet been completed.Even though Part I has been completed and a small number of foreign commercial ships has started using it, the refuelling and re-stockingfacilities in Gwadar are not yet satisfactory.
10. The Pakistani offer of the use of Karachi was reported to have been discussed with Chinese officials during the recent visit to China bythe Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC) General Tariq Majid for the sixth round of the Pakistan-China Defence and SecurityTalks. On December 15,2008, Gen.Majid and General Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff, People's Liberation Army, signed anagreement on military co-operation. Though details of this agreement were not disclosed, it is believed that Pakistan has offered the use ofthe Karachi port to the Chinese ships under this agreement. This visit was fixed long before the Chinese decision to undertake anti-piracy patrols.
11.India, which has sent a ship of its own navy to the Gulf of Aden on anti-piracy patrol, cannot object to the Chinese ships joining the patrol,but it would be justified in keeping a wary eye on the Chinese ships. What is now projected by the Chinese as a temporary measure ofself-defence and peace-keeping against pirates, could develop into a permanent presence of strategic value to the Chinese Navy in terms ofpower projection in the waters to the West of India. It could develop as a Chinese counter to India's power projection in the seas to the Eastof India.
12. Pakistan's immediate interest in the Chinese using Karachi as a possible base for their operations in the Somali waters arises from thehope that it could act as a deterrent to any Indian threat to Karachi in the event of the current tensions between India and Pakistan afterthe terrorist attack in Mumbai on November 26,2008, leading to a military confrontation between the two countries. (27-12-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For TopicalStudies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )