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China’s Naval Force Projection off Somalia

S. Rajasimman is Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • March 02, 2009

    Call it China’s new military diplomacy or emerging naval strategy. A Chinese naval fleet arrived in the Gulf of Aden off the Somalian coast on January 6, 2009 to carry out the first escort mission against pirates. On February 18, 2009, in an efficient display of its growing naval capabilities, the fleet completed its twenty first mission (the largest held so far in the series) of escorting merchant ships in this region. Ten Chinese merchant ships were part of the convoy while three foreign ones, including Hermione from Germany, Viking Crux from Singapore and Princess Nataly from Cyprus requested protection and were escorted by the Chinese fleet. The fleet sailed from a port in Sanya city of China’s southernmost island province of Hainan on December 26, 2008. The fleet comprises two destroyers (Haikou and DDG-169 Wuhan) and a supply ship (Weishanhu) from the South China Sea Fleet. The fleet carried about 800 crew members, including 70 soldiers from the Navy’s special force, and was equipped with ship-borne missiles and light weapons.

    It is timely to explore this issue given the Chinese motivation in conducting naval operations far away from the mainland for the first time. There seems to be a general consensus among many Chinese military and non-military experts that circumstances were favourable for projecting force at such a distance. Firstly, China has gained enough experience in long distance naval force deployment due its frequent military exchanges with other countries. The logistics problem of supply and refuelling was no longer seen as a constraint. While on its way to the Somalian coast, the fleet displayed its supply and refuelling capability as it entered the Indian Ocean through the Malacca Straits. The supply ship Weishanhu refuelled the two destroyers with several hundred tons of oil, an operation that an official described as “highly efficient”.

    The fact that two Chinese ships, a fishing vessel and a Hong Kong-flag ship with a 25-member crew, were seized by Somalian pirates in October 2008 does not qualify as a potential reason for this long distance naval deployment. These hijacks occurred off the Kenyan coast, and the total number of hijacks of Chinese vessels so far constitutes only 0.7 per cent of the total passages. Therefore, the decision may be due to other factors over and above the one involving immediate Chinese interest. Prior to deployment, China explicitly believed that any action in the Gulf of Aden must be carried out within the “United Nations Framework”. In his address to the United Nations on December 16, 2008 China’s Vice Foreign Minister had said that “China is seriously considering sending naval ships to the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast for escorting operations in the near future.” The minister also added that China appreciated the efforts made by other Navies to curb the problem of piracy. This needs to be contrasted with the Chinese government’s stand on growing intervention based military strategies. The China Defence White Paper, 2000 stated that the UN role in securing international peace was on the decline because of unilateral actions taken by some countries outside the United Nations Security Council framework (e.g. the Kosovo intervention). In the above mentioned address to the UN by the Vice Foreign Minister, he had said that the UN should also attempt to resolve the root causes of piracy in Somalia. The Chinese believe that piracy is a direct consequence of the domestic politico-military-economic condition within Somalia. The transitional federal government in place in Somalia had worked up the power ladder with American support and displaced the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which still holds huge mass support especially in Southern Somalia. This is indicative of US efforts in the war against terrorism. Furthermore, in the absence of multilateral operations under the UN, Somalia may in the future become a scene of unilateral intervention by the US and Britain or both. Piracy thus seems to be only the tip of the iceberg. However, Chinese behaviour is inconsistent with its political rhetoric at least at the level of policy. On June 24, 2007 C.N.O.O.P signed a deal with Somali President Abdullah Yusuf to explore the northern Puntland region for oil. This deal was signed in a hurry prior to the Somali government framing the National Oil Rules (NOR). Chinese firms backed by their government seem to be willing to take economic and political risks which western firms would shy away from. Any unilateral military action by western powers would affect Chinese interests in the region. Like the anti-satellite test in early January 2007, China seems to project its capabilities as part of its extending diplomacy without breaking any rules.

    China, which became a permanent member of the UN Security Council only in 1971, did not engage in peace keeping operations until 1989. In 1989, it began its first exploratory foray into UN peacekeeping missions, sending non-military observers to join the UN Namibia Transitional Period Aid Group overseeing a general election. In 1990, China dispatched military observers to the Middle East in support of the UN Truce Supervision Organization (UNTSO). One reason for this transition was the Tiananmen Square incident, when the People’s Liberation Army was caught on the wrong foot with its own people. This incident stimulated the need for the PLA to conduct more people-oriented activities such as disaster relief, domestic security, and other measures, but also, very importantly, participation in UN peacekeeping operations. This transition has now made China the largest contributor by a permanent member of the UN Security Council (in close competition with France).The second reason is the PRC’s concern over sovereignty and its violation through intervention. China was not supportive of UN mandated Blue Helmet operations due to its national experience. During the Cold War, the United Nations had formally sanctioned the use of force only once and China itself was at the receiving end during the UN-mandated operations in the Korean Peninsula in the early 1950s. With the Cold War world order overthrown in this era of intense economic interdependence, China’s concern seems to be reorienting. The third reason could be that Chinese concerns over Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, which, if left uncontrolled, could become cases for intervention.

    Another important motivation behind the decision to deploy a Chinese naval force off Somalia could be the fact that this involves the African continent where Beijing has substantial economic investments. Chinese leaders have been frequenting Africa since 2000. As a leading importer of crude oil, China depends on Africa for 25 per cent of its oil needs, which is projected to go up to 40 per cent by 2020. It has granted extensive debt packages to Africa on a no strings attached basis and its bilateral trade is expected with the continent is expected to touch US $100 billion by 2010. Suffice it to say that China’s stakes and advantages in Africa are high. The overall expected output of oil by Chinese firms in Africa is 78 million tons (presently the output is 40.3 million tons). China also depends on Saudi Arabia for its crude oil imports and has huge markets in Europe. Chinese merchant ships will have to necessarily frequent the waters off the Somali coast.

    Given the country’s limited force projection capability, China’s action is consistent with its overall policy strategy of creating an international order that is different from the Cold War order. Securing international peace and development is currently an objective of China’s foreign policy. The current international environment will only help China achieve its strategic and developmental goals. It will enhance its image as a responsible power in the twenty first century and give it the experience to conduct naval operations far from its shores.

    A few decades ago, while articulating new ways to use the National Defence Force (NFD), Deng Xiaoping’s had stated that “When our country is developed and more prosperous, we shall have a bigger role to play in the world.” After almost three decades this seems to be coming true.