01 August 2016

Now available as a Kindle eBook: “Six Years at Sea… and Counting: Gulf of Aden Anti-Piracy and China’s Maritime Commons Presence”

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, Six Years at Sea… and Counting: Gulf of Aden Anti-Piracy and China’s Maritime Commons Presence (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation, 2015).

Now available as a Kindle eBook!

Click here to purchase this book via Brookings Institution Press or from the Jamestown Store.

Six Years at Sea...& Counting--Gulf of Aden Anti-Piracy & China's Maritime Commons Presence


Every wave has its genesis some distance from shore. In this regard, China’s historic anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2008 have offered governments, researchers and pundits a rare window into Beijing’s nascent global maritime strategy. This study is one of the first attempts to comprehensively document and clarify the precise nature of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s maritime anti-piracy experience. It begins with an analysis of the internal drivers behind Beijing’s turn to taking on piracy beginning nearly a decade ago. Through a thorough reading of official and academic Chinese- and English-language sources, we explore geostrategic, domestic and international economic, and civilian and military institutional dynamics that drove China’s initial decision to contribute to anti-piracy off the coast of Somalia.

The book then inspects the nature and scope of the PLAN’s anti-piracy efforts, extensively cataloguing more than a score of anti-piracy escort flotillas in terms of the types of ships used, the identities of ship commanders and political leaders, foreign ports called upon, days at sea, and various other metrics. This allows us to track the operational evolution of PLAN anti-piracy operations over time, both with regard to Chinese naval and logistical lessons learned as well as trends in China’s naval diplomatic efforts attached to its anti-piracy mission.

Finally, we take stock of the broader implications of Beijing’s anti-piracy operations and find reason for measured optimism with regard to China’s role in future global maritime governance. While Beijing remains embroiled in testy military and political standoffs in East Asian waters, the atmosphere further afield is ripe for greater Chinese collaboration with the United States and other important maritime actors. If anything, China’s naval behavior further afield reflected by its anti-piracy missions remains relatively cautious and conservative, and other stakeholders would benefit from even deeper Chinese contributions in the future.

We conclude that well over six years of Chinese anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden have directly supported PLAN modernization goals and provided invaluable experience operating in distant waters. Lessons learned have spawned PLAN innovations in doctrine, operations, and international coordination. Many of the insights gleaned during deployments are applicable to security objectives closer to home; some officers enjoy promotion to important positions after returning. Anti-piracy operations have been a springboard for China to expand considerably its maritime security operations, from evacuating its citizens from Libya and Yemen to escorting Syrian chemical weapons to their destruction and participating in the search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. So great are the benefits to China’s global maritime presence and enhanced image at home and abroad that when Gulf of Aden anti-piracy operations finally wind down, Beijing will have to develop new means to address its burgeoning overseas interests.



Table of Contents

I. Executive Summary

II. Key Judgments

III. Introduction        

IV. Why China’s Navy Has Entered and Remained in the Gulf of Aden

V. From Recognition to Response: Institutional Processes and Preparations for Deployments

VI. Six Years of Anti-Piracy and Broader PLAN Growth

VII. Gulf of Aden Operations and China’s Future Far Seas Presence

VIII. Conclusion: A New Approach to Maritime Commons Security?

About the Authors    


Exhibit 1: PLAN Gulf of Aden Escort Statistics by Task Force, 2008-15

Exhibit 2: PLAN Anti-Piracy Escort Task Force Leaders with Rank, Billet and Grade       

Exhibit 3: PLAN Anti-Piracy Task Force Port Calls, 2009-15 (Selected)

Exhibit 4: Ports for Potential PLAN Overseas Access and PLAN Visits Thereto


Dr. Andrew S. Erickson is Professor of Strategy in, and a core founding member of, the U.S. Naval War College (NWC)’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI). He helped to establish CMSI and to stand it up officially in 2006, and has subsequently played an integral role in its development. Erickson currently serves on the Naval War College Review’s Editorial Board. Since 2008, he has been an Associate in Research at Harvard University’s John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. In 2013, while deployed in the Pacific as a Regional Security Education Program scholar aboard USS Nimitz, Erickson delivered twenty-five hours of presentations. Erickson has also helped escort the Commander of China’s Navy and his delegation on a visit to Harvard, and worked to help establish a bilateral naval officer exchange program. Erickson received his Ph.D. and M.A. in international relations and comparative politics from Princeton University. He blogs at www.andrewerickson.com and www.chinasignpost.com.

Austin M. Strange is a Ph.D. student in Harvard University’s Department of Government. Additionally, he is currently a Research Associate at AidData of the Institute for the Theory and Practice of International Relations at The College of William & Mary, and formerly a researcher at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College. Previously he studied at Zhejiang University (M.S.), Peking University, Tsinghua University, and the College of William & Mary (B.A.). His primary research interests are Chinese politics and foreign policy, international relations, international development, and security studies. His publications have appeared in venues such as Foreign Affairs.com, The National Interest, and The Jamestown Foundation. In addition, he has co-authored major publications on Chinese naval anti-piracy operations and U.S.-China military cooperation. He recently helped create the largest public database of Chinese development finance projects in Africa.


“Andrew Erickson, the indefatigable and brilliant observer of China’s Navy, has scored another important success. Working with Austin Strange, Erickson has written a landmark study on China’s six years of counter-piracy operations in the ‘far seas’ of the Gulf of Aden. Erickson assesses the benefits to China’s new naval power of its experiences on the high seas, benefits that signifies the emergence of the PLA Navy as a global force to be reckoned with.”

—Bernard Cole, associate dean of faculty and academic programs and professor of international history, National War College, Washington, DC. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 1995 after thirty years of service.

“A lucid analysis of China’s six years’ experience in anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden, detailing the breakthroughs it has achieved in out-of-area operations, logistics, and international cooperation. Erickson and Strange place these activities in the context of the PRC’s Far Seas naval diplomacy and the solidification of the PRC’s emergence as a maritime power.”

—Prof. June Teufel Dreyer, Dept. of Political Science, University of Miami

“The longest enduring ‘Far Seas’ mission China’s Navy has ever conducted is its continuing six-year participation in the multinational Gulf of Aden anti-piracy operations. The implications of what the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Beijing are learning from this experience to be applied in the future are central issues in China’s defense and foreign policies. Building on their earlier monograph No Substitute for Experience joined with meticulous exploitation of Chinese sources and interviews with PLAN officers, Erickson and Strange have prepared detailed descriptions of PLAN antipiracy operations over the years since 2008 and the ensuing deliberations inside China. Their assessments are therefore indispensable reading to understand what issues Beijing confronts as it weighs the future employment of what is an emerging global Navy in support of China’s rapidly expanding national interests.”

—Paul H.B. Godwin, Professor, National War College (ret.)

“Throughout history, great powers have been interested in piracy as much for the advantages suppression can give them in the game of nations as in the more journeyman task of protecting trade. Erickson and Strange bring out clearly that modern China is no exception. The story of the Chinese Navy’s deployment to counter the activities of pirates off Somalia demonstrated in the most visible terms that while it may not yet be a globally deployed fleet it is a globally capable one. The authors have drawn on a wealth of Chinese-language documents to show how over nearly twenty deployments to the region China’s long-standing ambition to be able to operate across the world’s oceans has been advanced by building an experiential platform from which to challenge its Asian neighbors and eventually the U.S. Navy. This book needs to be read by anyone interested in the part China played in quelling Somali piracy and in its seminal role in the rise of a new naval competitor.”

—Martin N. Murphy, author of Somalia, the New Barbary? Piracy and Islam off the Horn of Africa and Small Boats, Weak States and Dirty Money: Piracy and Maritime Terrorism in the Modern World

“PLA Navy watchers owe a debt of gratitude to Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange. Their monograph, Six Years at Sea…and Counting: Gulf of Aden Anti-Piracy and China’s maritime Commons Presence, gathers under one cover the best single appreciation of how important anti-piracy operations have been to both China’s reputation is a global responsible stakeholder a well as to the development of the PLA Navy to a more ‘balanced’ navy. After six years of ‘far seas’ operations it would be a mistake to pigeon-hole China’s Navy as strictly a regional force. Anti-piracy operations in the Arabian Sea have permitted the PLA Navy to make huge strides in its ability to conduct ‘far seas’ operations. These operations started in December 2008, which will be remembered as a key historic milestone in the evolution of the PLA Navy. It marked the beginning of the evolution of the PLAN from a coastal defense force to one that can join the great navies of the world in being able to conduct sustained operations in areas half way around the world from its home waters.”

“The antipiracy patrols permit the PLAN to learn how to sustain warships on a distant station for months at a time. They have learned what works and what doesn’t; what capabilities ships should be fitted with to be combat credible when on extended operations; what pieces of equipment and combat systems are reliable and what ones are not; and how to logistically sustain surface combatants, amphibious ships, and support ships for months at a time—over nine months in some cases. China has learned the value of naval diplomacy which the PLAN has practiced relentlessly along the entire Indian Ocean littoral and into the Mediterranean and Black Seas.”

“In short, the PLAN learning curve has been impressive; it has absorbed lessons quickly because the anti-piracy patrols are a real world ‘battle-laboratory’ for the PLAN, providing it an opportunity to observe the day-to-day operations of most of the world’s leading navies and absorb best practices for its own use. This monograph is an important addition to our understanding of the evolution of the PLAN.”

—RADM Michael McDevitt, USN (ret.), Senior Fellow, Center for Naval Analyses

“During a six-year effort, China’s navy overcame limited basing options and logistical nightmares to implement a successful anti-piracy campaign in the Gulf of Aden. The authors prove that China has the ability to conduct long-range naval operations far from home and explain how these operations now have far reaching strategic implications.”

—Wendell Minnick, Asia Bureau Chief, Defense News



The significance of China’s multiyear naval anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden depends largely on one’s perspective. 

For virtually all observers, China’s official response since 2008 to rampant Somali piracy, like that of other sovereign states, was a logical and measured response to threats to national and global economic, political and security interests. Such threats were particularly severe for China, which increasingly possesses economic and human interests sprawling beyond its national borders, and which relies on stable maritime commerce for prosperity. While China and others agree that the genesis and eradication of piracy are strongly rooted in domestic factors, long-term naval deployments have been a collaborative, “least-worst” approach sans more optimal alternatives.

For the Chinese people, at least to a limited extent, extended anti-piracy operations provide reassurance that the regime is cognizant and capable with regard to protecting Chinese human and economic interests outside the Middle Kingdom. More broadly, continued domestic emphasis on the success of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in fighting pirates has contributed to a longer-term objective of reassuring the Chinese public that the country is protected by a powerful navy.

For the Chinese government, the mission has been a useful thought exercise for state leaders within and outside the navy. Military and civilian officials alike were challenged by auxiliary but crucial elements of the deployments, such as logistics and budgeting, and had to consider how their strategic choices would impact domestic and international perceptions of Chinese foreign policy. Moreover, institutionalized coordination, ship-to-ship exchanges, joint exercises and port visits around Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East have added an important diplomatic layer to Chinese anti-piracy operations. Not unlike many other states, China has demonstrated a preference for operating under the aegis of a robust international legal framework such as that provided by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) when contributing to international and global commons security. Finally, distant sea anti-piracy operations have spurred internal and external discussions on the potential for more institutionalized overseas access points to better protect Beijing’s interests abroad.

For the PLAN itself, roughly 2,000 days of anti-piracy operations have directly supported naval modernization goals and provided an opportunity for PLAN ships and personnel to gain experience operating in distant waters. While PLAN anti-piracy task forces have largely exercised caution, increases in blue water competence as a result of the mission has spawned operational, doctrinal and coordination innovation in the service. Many of the insights gleaned en route to, during and on the way home from deployments are applicable to security objectives closer to home. The importance of the mission is modestly reflected in the rapid advancement that some officers enjoy after returning from the Gulf of Aden. Anti-piracy operations have been a springboard for China to progressively engage in a broader range of maritime security operations. The eventual conclusion of international Gulf of Aden anti-piracy operations will stimulate Chinese plans to bolster China’s global maritime presence.

For those outside of China, Beijing’s persistence presence in the Gulf of Aden has showcased China’s growing naval competence. The PLAN continues to earn the respect of other navies also invested in fighting piracy. Moreover, besides protecting Beijing’s overseas interests, anti-piracy operations have presented an opportunity for China to provide more public goods abroad as a responsible stakeholder. In this sense, the operations have been a useful reply to frequent claims that China punches below its weight in international security affairs. More broadly, the breadth and consistency of China’s anti-piracy efforts signal Beijing’s willingness to cooperate proactively to achieve mutually desirable security outcomes under certain circumstances.

With these perspectives in mind, this book explores the genesis, results and consequences of China’s anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden over the past six years.