17 November 2014

China’s Blue Soft Power: Antipiracy, Engagement, and Image Enhancement

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “China’s Blue Soft Power: Antipiracy, Engagement, and Image Enhancement,” Naval War College Review 68.1 (Winter 2015): 71-91.

Translated in traditional Chinese as:

艾瑞克森 [Andrew S. Erickson] 博士、史崔奇 [Austin M. Strange] 博士生; 譯者: 翟文中 (海軍備役上校) [Translation by Capt. CHAI Wen-Chung, ROC-N (Ret.)], “中國大陸的遠洋軟實力 打擊海盜、國際交往與形象提升(上)” [Mainland China’s Use of Blue Water Soft Power to Combat Piracy, Engage in International Exchanges, and Enhance its Image: Part 1 of 2], 中國大陸軍力 [Defense Technology Monthly] 3 (2015): 64-71.

艾瑞克森 [Andrew S. Erickson] 博士、史崔奇 [Austin M. Strange] 博士生; 譯者: 翟文中 (海軍備役上校) [Translation by Capt. CHAI Wen-Chung, ROC-N (Ret.)], “中國大陸的遠洋軟實力 打擊海盜、國際交往與形象提升(下)” [Mainland China’s Use of Blue Water Soft Power to Combat Piracy, Engage in International Exchanges, and Enhance its Image: Part 2 of 2], 中國大陸軍力 [Defense Technology Monthly] 4 (2015): 42-49.

On 3 September 2014, almost six years since Chinese warships first entered the Gulf of Aden to fulfill antipiracy duties, China Central Television (CCTV)–8 aired the first episode of “In the Gulf of Aden” (舰在亚丁湾). The multidozen-episode program, designed to “ignite raging patriotism” (燃起熊熊爱国心), given evening prime-time status, and attracting a popular audience with a star-studded cast, explores in dramatic fashion Beijing’s experience fighting modern piracy. Produced by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Political Department’s

Television Art Center (海军政治部电视艺术中心) over three years, the series offers a unique window into how the PLAN has conducted its antipiracy mission and seeks to portray its experience to a Chinese audience.

In the first episode’s action-packed beginning, PLAN Vessel 168 deploys special forces by helicopter to repel Somali pirates boarding the crippled China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company vessel Zhanshan. Meanwhile, Electro-Mechanical Branch squad leader Sun Weimin helps fix the ship’s stalled engine, enabling it to rejoin the escort formation. Political commissar Xiao Weiguo subsequently grants Sun a twenty-minute phone call home—twice his previous allocation. Later episodes intersperse the glories of Gulf of Aden operations with the privations of being away from families, who are separated from service members by thousands of miles and

by limitations in information transmission. Gripping scenes portray PLAN personnel constantly checking food quality, averting phytosanitary disaster by switching in-port suppliers, refueling under way, weathering storms, exercising with foreign navies and receiving their officers aboard, adjusting plans rapidly to handle unexpected challenges, using special weapons and techniques to dispel pirates nonlethally, saving wounded merchant seamen with emergency medical treatment, and receiving gratitude from domestic and foreign ships they protect.

While some aspects of helicopter operations, weapons firing, and special forces engagement with pirates appear embellished for cinematic effect, the series uses real PLAN personnel and PLAN and civilian ships. Many details match realistic documentation in China’s state and military media. Human experiences are personified uniquely—as when a PLAN marine, Fang Xiaoba, pays respects at the grave of his father, who died rendering medical assistance in Tanzania—but collectively represent actual struggles and triumphs of sailors and families. A few scenarios exceed actual events to date. Most prominently, on a small forested island off Somalia, Team Leader Mao Dahua leads his special forces in a sixteen-hour battle replete with exchanges of fire to evacuate thirteen Taiwanese fishermen cornered by pirates. Yet such heroics are not utterly fanciful and might well foreshadow future PLAN operations.

Beyond simply serving as a blockbuster image engaging domestic dreams of a strong military, however, since 2008 China’s antipiracy escorts have provided important soft-power benefits for Beijing on a truly international stage. For the first time in its modern history China has deployed naval forces operationally beyond its immediate maritime periphery for extended durations, to protect merchant vessels from pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Over a six-year span beginning in December 2008, China has contributed over ten thousand navy personnel in nearly twenty task forces. In nearly eight hundred groups, these forces have escorted over six thousand Chinese and foreign commercial vessels and have “protected and helped over 60” of them. As the PLAN’s commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, informed one of the authors, the mission has achieved “two ‘100 percents’ [两个百分之百]: providing 100 percent security to all ships under escort, while ensuring PLAN forces’ own security 100 percent.”

Although it is uncertain how many task forces will be deployed and for how long, China’s presence in the Gulf of Aden has extended through 2014, and the PLAN appears almost certain to continue efforts through 2015; it will likely persist for still longer if the United Nations further extends its mandate for navies to fight piracy off Somalia. The probability of this is arguably even higher following the announcement in late 2014 that East Asian rival Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force will soon take command of a major international antipiracy coalition. While Admiral Wu acknowledges that new piracy challenges have emerged in the Gulf of Guinea, “a concerning trend for all world navies,” he nevertheless maintains, “As long as Gulf of Aden pirate activities continue, so too will the escort missions of international navies.” Six years ago, under United Nations authorization, China began to dispatch antipiracy task forces to the Gulf of Aden. At the beginning, China planned for only one year of antipiracy operations. This period was then extended for another year, and another, and so on. “So far,” Wu declared, “there is no end in sight for the mission.”

China’s naval antipiracy mission represents an unprecedented instance of conduct by the PLAN of sustained long-distance operations. It provides a rare window through which outside observers can see how the naval component of China’s “going out” strategy transects economic, political, and strategic dimensions. While many of China’s other maritime activities damage its international image, antipiracy operations in the far seas project soft power and a constructive image. Likely in part because of this positive publicity potential, Beijing has distributed copious details on its antipiracy operations via official media, including in English.

The Chinese navy’s antipiracy missions provide much-needed support for Chinese overseas interests. But the PLAN has also crafted its antipiracy missions to portray blue-water operations positively abroad. Increasingly, the PLAN’s antipiracy mandate is oriented toward broader international security objectives. Commercial escort statistics exemplify this trend: initially China’s navy was only allowed to escort Chinese-flagged ships through the Gulf of Aden, but now in some cases over 70 percent of ships in given Chinese escort flotillas have been foreign flagged. Similarly, to secure the maritime commons Chinese commanding officers and sailors serving off Somalia have worked increasingly in the framework of bilateral exchanges with other navies as well as in multistakeholder settings.

This article explores the soft-power dimension of China’s far-seas antipiracy operations. It addresses the extent to which Gulf of Aden deployments might increase the PLAN’s prospects for cooperation with other navies and also the impact of these missions on the role the navy plays within China’s larger diplomacy. Finally, it assesses how these deployments might shape future Chinese naval development. …


Andrew Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “China’s Anti-Piracy Mission in the Gulf of Aden: Implications for Anti-Piracy in the South China Sea,” in Wu Shicun and Zou Keyuan, eds., Non-Traditional Security Issues and the South China Sea: Shaping a New Framework for Cooperation (London: Ashgate, 2014), 169-204.

Andrew S. Erickson, “No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden,” Eight Bells Book Lecture, Naval War College Museum, Newport, RI, 27 February 2014.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Why China’s Gulf Piracy Fight Matters,” Global Public Square, CNN, 7 January 2014.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Parallel Progress, Positive Potential: Sino-American Cooperation to Further Sea Lane Security in the Gulf of Aden,” China International Strategy Review 2013 (English edition) (2013): 479-501.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Piracy’s Next Frontier: A Role for China in Gulf of Guinea Security?” The National Interest, 10 December 2013.

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 Study 10 (November 2013).

Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange, “China and the International Antipiracy Effort,” The Diplomat, 1 November 2013.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Pragmatic Partners, the Unsung Story of U.S.-China Anti-Piracy Coordination,” Guest Blog Post for Elizabeth C. Economy, Asia Unbound, Council on Foreign Relations, 24 October 2013.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Sunk Costs: China and the Pirates,” The Diplomat, 26 September 2013.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Learning the Ropes in Blue Water: The Chinese Navy’s Gulf of Aden Deployments Have Borne Worthwhile Lessons in Far-Seas Operations—Lessons that Go Beyond the Antipiracy Mission,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 139.4 (April 2013): 34-38.

Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange, “‘Selfish Superpower’ No Longer? China’s Anti-Piracy Activities and 21st-Century Global Maritime Governance,” Harvard Asia Quarterly, 14.1/2 (Spring/Summer 2012): 92-102.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Chinese Sea Power in Action: the Counter-Piracy Mission in the Gulf of Aden and Beyond,” in Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Andrew Scobell, eds., The PLA at Home and Abroad: Assessing the Operational Capabilities of China’s Military (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College and National Bureau of Asian Research, July 2010), 295-376.

Andrew S. Erickson and Justin D. Mikolay, “Welcome China to the Fight Against Pirates,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 135.3 (March 2009): 34-41.