Military analysts have been slowly coming to grips with Beijing’s decision in December to dispatch naval forces to the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy — China’s first deployment of such forces abroad since the 15th century.
China’s decision was part of its goal to play a role commensurate with its status as a “great power,” US National War College professor Bernard Cole said on March 4 during testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.
Aside from considerations of image — a show of force to consolidate the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) grip on power — the mission was meant to safeguard China’s international interests.
Furthermore, by participating in a UN-sanctioned, multinational effort to combat piracy at sea, China is sending a signal that it is willing to — and now capable of — being a responsible stakeholder.
By interacting with naval forces of other countries, making port calls abroad and securing transit agreements, China is strengthening the image of a “peaceful rise” and “peaceful development” advocated by Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and other Chinese leaders.
What this mission also tells us is that for the first time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy is capable of sustaining task group operations outside its waters for an extended period of time. The current deployment consists of three ships and about 800 crew, and Beijing has announced that it could be relieved by a similar group after three months if the situation warrants it.
Rather than content itself with port calls and “showing the flag” in international waters, the PLA Navy is engaging in actual combat and, in Cole’s assessment, is performing in a “well-planned, professionally competent fashion.”
Cole then told the commission that Beijing’s “considerable expenditure of resources” in the anti-piracy mission could also stem from its growing confidence that the Taiwan contingency — until now the focus of the PLA — is well under control and that cross-strait talks initiated after President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) came to power last year have made it possible for the PLA to operate in other theaters.
While this may be true for the Navy, Cole’s assessment fails to mention that since Ma came into office, the PLA has continued to increase the number of missiles it aims at Taiwan and has not relented in its vow to use force against Taiwan if necessary.
More likely, the deployment to the Arabian Sea was an opportunity — and Cole only mentioned this in passing — to gain precious combat experience. In other words, by joining the efforts, it was killing two birds with one stone.
There is no doubt that the Gulf of Aden mission is contributing to the transformation of the PLA Navy from a coastal defense force to one capable of operating offensively at long range and for an extended period of time.
The mission is also increasing the capabilities of the Navy should it be called upon to use force in the Taiwan Strait. The deployment will have given it firsthand experience of other navies at work, during which commitment we can expect that intelligence will have been collected and analyzed back in Beijing.
Yes, China is helping fight piracy in international waters and appears to be doing a good job. But the battle it is gearing up for is still in the future — and much closer to home.