10 October 2013

The Relevant Organs: Institutional Factors behind China’s Gulf of Aden Deployment

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “The Relevant Organs: Institutional Factors behind China’s Gulf of Aden Deployment,” Jamestown Foundation China Brief 13.20 (10 October 2013).

Numerous institutional factors have driven and incentivized China’s participation in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Central to executing China’s first instance of protracted Far Seas naval operations has been inter-agency coordination among the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and other military and civil units and agencies. Beginning in 2008, Gulf of Aden operations have been designed and supported by an increasingly flat network of civil and military organs that collectively decide strategies, design and implement policies, and provide rear area support for the PLAN’s anti-piracy operations. This article will identify the main actors in this process, survey the gains achieved to date, and explain what these developments mean for broader Chinese military development.

The Institutional Genesis of Chinese Anti-Piracy

Given its flourishing ocean economy, China’s naval deployment to and sustained presence in the Gulf of Aden can be explained partially by economic incentives. Politically, Beijing felt compelled to avoid being seen as impotent compared to other large—and not so large—states. Finally, as viewed within China’s highest policy-making circles, deploying PLAN vessels implicitly allowed China to begin what many civil and military leaders viewed as the next phase in China’s twenty-first-century military modernization. In addition to these strong incentives, a perceived lack of cost-effective alternatives for addressing piracy on the Far Seas ultimately pushed Beijing to send PLAN forces to protect its interests.

One of the most thorough accounts available to date of the genesis and initial stages of the missions documents that it took nearly a year to decide finally to send PLAN forces through the Indian Ocean to the Horn of Africa (Huang Li, Sword Pointed at the Gulf of Aden, p. 174). One dimension of the internal debates over piracy related to the aspirations of China’s public and leadership to see their nation become a great power in the twenty-first century. The “China dream” articulated by General Secretary Xi Jinping in early December 2012 has resonated throughout the Chinese bureaucracy, reflecting official and public desires for national rejuvenation (Xinhua, December 2, 2012). As Daniel Hartnett recently wrote, one component of this revival is the “Dream of a Strong Military” (qiangjun meng) (See China Brief, Vol. 13, Issue 17). Indeed, in recent years China’s “perfect record” of anti-piracy patrols has been repeatedly celebrated in Chinese official statements, scholarship and media.

As early as May 2008 [*] associates at the Navy Military Studies Research Institute and the PLA National Defense University (NDU) began discussing escort feasibility. Representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), Ministry of Transportation (MoT), and the Headquarters of the General Staff of the PLA, as well as various experts, began convening in mid-October 2008. Captain Xing Guangmei, director of the World Naval Research Division, director of the Legal Research Office (falü yanjiushi), and a research fellow at the Navy Military Studies Research Institute (haijun xueshu yanjiusuo), played a significant role in deployment policy formulation. Beginning in October 2008 she and her team were presented with several policy questions: “What kind of military operations are military anti-piracy operations? [Is one] able to dispatch troops [to conduct anti-piracy operations]? What will military personnel do [once] deployed? If during the voyage [warships] do not [successfully] save ships victimized [by piracy], [then] what kinds of responsibilities will warship commanders bear? What to do if [Chinese forces] enter Somali territory?” [1]

China also faced the central issue of deploying forces independently rather than under the aegis of a preexisting multilateral mechanism. Given uneasiness on both sides regarding security concerns and familiarity, however, it was never likely that Beijing would integrate itself into one of the prevailing transnational mechanisms such as U.S.-led Combined Task Force (CTF)-151, NATO-commanded Operation Ocean Shield (OOS), or EU NAVFOR (Atalanta). The reality that unilateral involvement would be the only feasible option for the PLAN under prevailing circumstances may explain the surprisingly quick and effective coordination observed between China’s MoT, MoFA, and the PLAN, all of which cooperated with unusual speed in late 2008 to craft a framework for the PLAN’s anti-piracy deployment and thereby establish an operational foundation. A symposium held by these three entities, as well as the Ministry of Commerce, in early December, further formalized the policy process.

In November 2008 the Central Military Commission (CMC) overwhelmingly approved the proposal. [2] It is important to note that Beijing did not deploy military units in the Gulf of Aden until the United Nations Security Council adopted in 2008 three resolutions specifically authorizing the international community to intervene in Somali waters. Colonel Yang Yujun, deputy director of the Information Affairs Office and spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, cited the resolution’s authority in December 2012:  “Based on this resolution by the UN Security Council, escort vessel formations by the Chinese Navy will continue to fulfill escort tasks in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off of Somalia” (“Ministry of National Defense: The Chinese Military Will Provide Security Support for the Maritime Law Enforcement Activities of the State,” MoD website, December 27, 2012).  The continuation of the PLAN’s Gulf of Aden deployment still rests legally on Security Council resolutions authorizing states to combat piracy along the Somali coast. But Chinese officials, scholars and other experts have offered disparate opinions on the legal basis for China’s rules of engagement vis-à-vis pirate confrontations. Lawyers like Xing take a strict view in which pirate motives must be—according to international law—purely economic rather than political or ideological, for states to have a legal basis for combating them. There is even less consensus as to if and how China’s navy should detain and process captured pirate suspects on the Far Seas. As a result of considerable uncertainty over the robustness of domestic and international law, or what many scholars refer to gray areas, policies towards pirate confrontations are markedly conservative. … … …