01 May 2015

China’s Global Maritime Presence: Hard and Soft Dimensions of PLAN Antipiracy Operations

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin Strange, “China’s Global Maritime Presence: Hard and Soft Dimensions of PLAN Antipiracy Operations,” Jamestown China Brief 15.9 (1 May 2015).

The global antipiracy mission off Somalia, a hallmark for collective 21st-century international security, is gradually moving toward a close. There have been no successful Somali pirate attacks since 2012 and, barring a sudden spike in violence, navies may start exiting the Gulf of Aden within the next few years. 

Like many states, China has been an important victim and respondent concerning Somali piracy. Over the past six-plus years, its antipiracy operations have helped stabilize waters off Somalia, while helping secure some of China’s purported 1.2 million workers and $500 billion in investments overseas. Meanwhile, China’s navy has accrued important operational skills supporting “hard” naval strength while engaging in far-reaching “soft” military diplomacy.

Gulf of Aden operations are not over yet. This May, a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) rear admiral will assume multi-month command of Combined Task Force (CTF)-151, U.S.-led multinational naval taskforce and one of the “big three” multinational antipiracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. Tokyo’s temporary leadership may discourage Beijing from withdrawing antipiracy forces in the near term to avoid being perceived as a less responsible Asia-Pacific power, though China’s calculus is probably based much more heavily on other considerations.

Since Gulf of Aden deployments will not persist indefinitely, however, it is time to reflect on the implications of China’s experience therein. What has China achieved over the past six years through antipiracy operations? Has the global fight against maritime piracy enlarged China’s global naval presence? Finally, what will China’s global naval presence resemble in the post-Gulf of Aden era? …