07 January 2014

Why China’s Gulf Piracy Fight Matters

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

Editor’s note: Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College. Austin M. Strange is a research associate at the China Maritime Studies Institute. The views expressed are the authors’ alone.

December 26, Chairman Mao’s birthday, is always a significant date for China. But last month’s 120th anniversary came at a time when his legacy is increasingly subject to vigorous debate among the Chinese public, media, academia and even officialdom. And it also established a new landmark in contemporary Chinese history, an unprecedented milestone in Chinese foreign policy that Mao would surely be proud of: the 5th year anniversary of China’s naval anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden.

To honor the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s contributions to maritime security off Somalia, the China Maritime Museum, located in Shanghai, opened a special exhibit that runs into March, and which features photos and actual mission mementos. Chinese media outlets continue to roll out a flurry of articles commemorating the occasion. But what is the actual significance of Chinese anti-piracy activities? And what has China accomplished there over the past five years?

First and foremost, China’s naval foray into the Gulf of Aden, beginning in 2008, is a resounding response from Beijing to threats against its overseas interests. Chinese people and economic assets continue to disperse throughout the world at record pace nearly four decades after Deng Xiaoping’s opening up reforms. As a result, nontraditional security breaches outside of China, such as natural disasters, terrorist attacks (and, in this case, maritime piracy) pose growing threats to Chinese national interests.

The ocean is at the center of China’s “Going out” policy: China relies on seaborne shipping for the vast majority of its trade, and PLAN is emerging as China’s most prominent service. Both Beijing’s calculated, resolute response to Somali pirate attacks on Chinese citizens, as well as its steadfast commitment to protecting Chinese and foreign ships over the last five years, signal China’s staunch commitment to ensuring safe conditions for Chinese overseas.

Statistics accumulated over the past five years make clear Beijing’s commitment to security sea lines of communication (SLOCs). According to state media, the PLAN has dispatched 15,000 personnel over 16 escort taskforce flotillas since 2008, averaging three per year. Taskforces, which usually consist of China’s most advanced frigates, destroyers and amphibious ships, have escorted 5,463 Chinese and foreign commercial ships – over 1,000 ships per year. PLAN forces have also thwarted more than 30 potential pirate attacks, rescued over 40 commercial ships, and escorted 11 vessels previously taken by pirates. Moreover, the fact that such information is actively recorded and publicized demonstrates the state’s desire to derive maximum domestic and international publicity benefits from the missions. … … ….

This article draws on the author’s recent monograph, No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden, Naval War College CMSI China Maritime Study 10 (November 2013).