A Chinese naval fleet consisting of two destroyers and a supply ship departed on Dec. 26 on a mission to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters. The mission is China’s first outside the Pacific in modern times.
Piracy off the Somali coast intensified last year with 20 percent of the 1,265 Chinese ships passing through the area coming under attack.
The UN has passed three resolutions since July calling for the international community to respond to the piracy problem. More than a dozen warships, including vessels from the US, Russia, the UK, France, India and Saudi Arabia, have answered the call, leaving China the only major power not taking an active part in the process.
By participating in such a mission, China’s image as a world power may improve. Until now, China’s external behavior can hardly be described as that of a responsible international stakeholder worthy of the status of a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
For example, US Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs James Shinn told US Congress that Chinese state-owned companies have repeatedly violated UN Security Council sanctions that ban the sales of weapons, military equipment and nuclear technology to Iran. Shinn said in his testimony that he was particularly concerned at China’s sales of weapons to Iran and accused Tehran of arming and supporting militant groups in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan that “target and kill Americans and our allies.”
On several occasions, the US has imposed sanctions on Chinese firms for selling Iran weapons, weapons-related products and other dual-use commodities that can have a military use, but Beijing has protested and condemned those US moves.
China has been on the record opposing UN sanctions against Iran, which has withstood three rounds of limited sanctions because of its suspected development of nuclear technology. Tehran can continue to count on China — a longstanding and staunch ally of Iran — and Russia, now at odds with the West over Georgia, to delay, obstruct and water down any stronger punitive measures sought by the US and the EU.
While some European companies have cut trade with Iran or withdrawn investments to pressure Tehran to suspend its uranium enrichment activities, Chinese firms have stepped in to fill the void and take the business. For example, Royal Dutch Shell and French oil giant Total pulled out of planned investments in Iran — only for China National Offshore Oil Corp and Iran’s Pars Oil and Gas company to reach an agreement last July to exploit the North Pas gas field. More than 100 Chinese State companies are working in Iran on airports, ports, highways, dams, steel manufacturing and telecommunication projects. Two-way China-Iran trade is expected to reach US$11 billion, making China Iran’s No. 2 trading partner, behind only the United Arab Emirates.
Since the Shah’s ouster in 1979, Beijing has viewed the Islamic Republic of Iran as a highly valuable anti-Western partner and sought to cultivate and forge a strategic partnership with Tehran. China and Iran share the belief that “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and have closely cooperated to challenge and counterbalance US domination in the Middle East.
Iran has repeatedly threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, the only way in and out of the Persian Gulf. Such a threat is taken seriously, as Iran has large numbers of Chinese made C-801 and C-802 anti-ship missiles deployed in coastal batteries along the eastern shore of the waterway and Chinese-supplied Houdong fast patrol boats equipped with C-802s, capable of launching high-speed attacks against the US Fifth Fleet’s warships.