01 October 2013

Sunk Costs: China and the Pirates

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

Maritime piracy is one of many non-traditional security challenges that confront China and other states in the 21st century. After flourishing for over two decades, why has piracy elicited a greater response from China than have other security threats? The answer lies in the confluence of strategic, political and economic factors – particularly the last: in recent years, China has developed a burgeoning “ocean economy.” Across all three of these dimensions, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s robust presence in the Gulf of Aden (GoA) through fifteen deployments since December 2008 demonstrates Beijing’s growing realization that inaction is becoming less affordable in the maritime commons. As China’s GoA approach shows, it has recognized the imperative of actively protecting its ocean economy lifeline.

Attacks in and around the GoA have produced the greatest threats to sea lines of communication (SLOC) stability for much of the 21st century, though Somali piracy plummeted during 2012-13 from its 2010 peak, largely because of coordinated naval operations in the region. Despite positive results, pirate attacks continue to trend subtly upward in less-governed maritime regions such as the Gulf of Guinea, and navies remain vigilant about the threat of global piracy. States concur that piracy is largely rooted in the failure of domestic governance institutions, which, in places like Somalia, are still extremely volatile and unstable. As China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN emphasizes, military action can only mitigate the scourge of Somali piracy.

Yet with no nation willing to intervene systematically on land, seaborne mitigation is the order of the day. Piracy threatens to disrupt SLOCs through which 90% of the world’s trade flows, creating major challenges for seafaring states. China is no exception. Antipiracy operations thus represent a critical test for Beijing, not only operationally, but also in terms of policy and symbolism. The economic incentives are perhaps the strongest.

The economic drivers behind the PLAN’s deployment to the GoA and its sustained presence there are inevitable products of China’s “going out” policy. In particular, China’s economy, even more than its military, is increasingly looking to the seas for new growth outlets. That in turn makes the links between SLOC security and the stability of China’s growing “ocean economy” ever more critical. … … …

This article draws on the authors’ monograph “No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden,” Naval War College China Maritime Study 10 (forthcoming 2013). It reflects solely their personal views.