02 January 2014

No Substitute for Experience

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “No Substitute for Experience,” Guest Blog Post for Elizabeth C. Economy, Asia Unbound, Council on Foreign Relations, 2 January 2014.

This guest post is by Andrew Erickson, an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College, and Austin Strange, a researcher for the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute.

Aside from being the 120th birthday of Mao Zedong, December 26, 2013, marked China’s fifth anniversary of antipiracy operations off the coast of Somalia and is being lauded as a milestone in Chinese naval and diplomatic history. The China Maritime Museum in Shanghai has opened a special exhibit running through March featuring photos and actual items used by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) during escort missions [link in Chinese]. As the PLAN enters year six of its first protracted contribution to international security, what has Beijing learned from its stint in the Gulf of Aden, and which lessons are germane in the broader context of China’s military development?

The mission has become so routine that it is easy to forget its unprecedented nature. Precipitating events in 2008 included pirate attacks on Chinese crews, rising insurance rates, and the failure of stopgap protections. Rerouting to avoid threats risked delivery date slippage and hence loss of Chinese shipping firms’ razor-thin profit margins and market share. Compensation to at-risk commercial crews negotiated by the Hong Kong Seaman’s Union [in Chinese] became increasingly unaffordable. These factors, coupled with growing pressure from shipping companies and netizens, as well as several high-profile Somali pirate attacks on Chinese seafarers, left no more room for muddling through. Top-level leadership decision-making enabled pursuit of an escort mission that the PLAN had apparently discussed and proposed earlier. In an unusually rapid and effective interagency approach, the PLAN, the Ministry of Transportation (MoT), and other relevant organizations coordinated the necessary arrangements for the mission’s December 26, 2008, launch.

Since then, in sixteen taskforces, over 15,000 select PLAN sailors and officershave sharpened their skills, improved coordination mechanisms, and tested new technologies and platforms in the Gulf of Aden. The PLAN has escorted almost 6,000 Chinese and foreign commercial ships [in Chinese], at a rate of over one thousand ships per year, since 2008. Through this large-scale, long-term operation, China’s navy has incrementally accrued know-how and lessons that it could not have gained otherwise. Moreover, it has implemented them widely, and thereby realized operational and procedural improvements, with impressive speed and resourcefulness. For instance, the PLAN has progressively adopted a foreign port-based refueling structure to address the needs of its task force ships. Similarly, China’s antipiracy flotillas adopt escort procedures and formations based on mission-specific details rather than following uniform models.

The views expressed here are those of the authors alone. Additional details are available in their recently-published monograph: Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden, Naval War College CMSI China Maritime Study10 (November 2013).