29 June 2015

Deep Blue Diplomacy: Soft Power and China’s Antipiracy Operations

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Deep Blue Diplomacy: Soft Power and China’s Antipiracy Operations,” in Bruce A. Elleman and S. C. M. Paine, eds., Navies and Soft Power: Historical Case Studies of Naval Power and the Nonuse of Military Force, Naval War College Newport Paper 42 (June 2015), 163-79.

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 and has escorted over six thousand Chinese and foreign commercial vessels in the process. While it is uncertain how many task forces will be deployed and for how long, China will likely remain in the Gulf of Aden through 2015, and perhaps longer if the United Nations further extends its mandate for navies to fight piracy off Somalia. China’s naval antipiracy mission represents an unprecedented instance of conduct by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) of sustained longdistance operations. It provides a rare window by which outside observers can see how the naval component of China’s “going out” strategy cuts across 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 positive image.

The Chinese navy’s antipiracy missions provide much-needed security 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 chapter 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 relate to future Chinese naval development. …


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