26 December 2018

The China Anti-Piracy Bookshelf: Reflections on a Decade of PLAN Deployments to the Gulf of Aden

What a difference a decade makes! When the definitive histories of how China became a great sea power in the 21st century are written, an important chapter will surely be devoted to a development that reached the ten-year mark today: China’s deployment of 31-and-counting naval task forces to the Gulf of Aden since 26 December 2008.

A major breakthrough at the time, this mission was originally prompted by growing Chinese concerns about the impact of piracy around the Horn of Africa on commercial shipping and the inability of stopgap measures to solve the problem. In very short order, China’s navy made extensive preparations and began “learning by doing” in an unforgiving new environment, often before the eyes of the world.

To date, China’s navy has escorted more than 6,600 commercial ships and saved dozens from being pirated—not just PRC-flagged vessels, but also many foreign vessels as well. A decade into this effort, however, the most significant and enduring impact is not on seaborne commerce but rather on the experience and capabilities of China’s navy.

As in so many other areas, there is simply “no substitute for experience,” and the PLA Navy (PLAN) has used the Gulf of Aden mission as an invaluable laboratory and training ground. Deployments have offered a springboard for evacuating civilians from Libya and Yemen, escorting Syrian chemical weapons to their destruction, drilling and interacting with foreign navies, and calling on numerous ports throughout the Indian Ocean Region and beyond. In one of the surest signs that the benefits for China include far more than simply the defense of merchant ships from piracy, various PLAN submarines have accompanied some of the more recent task forces.

China already has the world’s largest navy by number of ships. As it ranges increasingly into the “far seas,” led increasingly by officers with experience gained in the Gulf of Aden, the anti-piracy deployments of the past decade will increasingly be recognized as a major breakthrough that has helped China develop and sustain a true blue water navy for the first time in its long history.


China’s Escort Capability Significantly Improved after 10 Years of Escort Missions,” People’s Daily Online, 26 December 2018.

The Chinese military has conducted over 1,190 escort missions, safeguarding the voyages of more than 6,600 merchant ships from China and abroad in the Gulf of Aden since the first escort fleet was dispatched 10 years ago, showing significant progress in the nation’s naval escort capability, experts said.

Since December 26, 2008, the day when China sent its first escort fleet, consisting of two destroyers and one auxiliary ship, Chinese naval forces have dispatched a total of more than 26,000 soldiers and officers overseas.

China’s decision to send naval forces to the area came in response to the UN’s call to launch escort missions in the Gulf of Aden, which is one of the world’s busiest sea passages, but also a notorious area for pirates.

In 2008 alone, more than 30 ships were hijacked and over 600 crew members taken hostage.

The first Chinese escort fleet received its first emergency call from a Greek merchant ship under siege by pirates.

Over the years, Chinese forces have rescued or escorted more than 70 domestic and international ships under emergency situations, casting out some 3,000 pirate vessels.

“For the naval escort fleets, it’s an unprecedented task to conduct anti-piracy escort missions on the high seas. It’s a challenge for all the soldiers and officers who must work under a completely new environment and to deploy forces to combat piracy,” naval expert Zhang Junshe commented.

The deployment of Chinese naval forces for anti-piracy missions has sped up by a factor of five over the past decade and the time required for shipborne helicopters has been shortened by three times, according to Zhang.

In addition to escorting merchant ships, the escort fleets also took up various others missions, including escorting the transportation of the seventh batch of chemical weapons from Syria in September 2013. In December 2014, the fleets sent more than 600 tonnes of fresh water to the capital of Maldives when the city suffered from fresh water shortage.

In March 2015, a Chinese escort fleet undertook the nation’s first evacuation of Chinese nationals overseas. More than 600 Chinese nationals and another 200 citizens from 15 countries and regions were successfully evacuated from Yemen.

In March 2011, the Chinese military for the first time escorted an evacuation ship carrying more than 2,000 Chinese nationals from Syria.

China’s high-sea military logistics support has developed into a more comprehensive model with multiple logistic support services, including remote technical support and overseas centralized maintenance. The support model is becoming more mature, with better efficiency, a China Central Television report said.

“As Chinese nationals travel abroad for sight-seeing and trade, overseas interests are becoming increasingly important to national interests. Therefore, the military’s escort missions serve as an important guarantee for safe sea passage and overseas interests,” Zhang noted.


Zhang Hailong, Lai Yonglei and Xue Chengqing, “China’s 30th and 31st Naval Escort Taskforces Join Forces in Gulf of Aden,” China Military Online, 26 December 2018.

GULF OF ADEN, Dec. 26 (ChinaMil) — On the morning of December 24, 2018 (local time), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy’s 31st escort taskforce arrived in the waters at the eastern Gulf of Aden as scheduled after an uninterrupted voyage of 15 days and nights, where it met the 30th escort taskforce. 

Since it arrived in the Gulf of Aden on September 1, the 30th Chinese naval escort taskforce has escorted 59 merchant ships in 31 batches over the past four months, effectively safeguarding the maritime transport line. 

The 31st Chinese naval escort taskforce set sail on December 9 from the port city of Zhanjiang in south China’s Guangdong Province. The taskforce is composed of the amphibious dock landing ship Kunlunshan (Hull 998), the guided-missile frigate Xuchang (Hull 536) and the comprehensive supply ship Luomahu (Hull 964). 

After their joint escort mission, the two taskforces will conduct a mission handover ceremony. The 31st Chinese naval escort taskforce will then replace its predecessor on escort missions in the Gulf of Aden.

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Huang Panyue, ed.; Bei Guo Fang Wu, “PLA Navy Ends Era of ‘Supply-Ship Troika’ in its Escort Mission,” China Military Online, 9 August 2018.

The 30th Chinese naval escort taskforce set sail on August 6 from a naval port in Qingdao of east China’s Shandong Province to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off Somalia for an escort mission.

The escort taskforce comprises the Type-054A guided-missile frigates Wuhu (Hull 539) and Handan (Hull 579) as well as the comprehensive supply ship Dongpinghu (Hull 960).

More than a piece of news, this is a regular report issued every four months and the 30th of its kind. In 2018, the 10th year of its escort mission, the Chinese navy is reviewing its past hardship and current progress.

The comprehensive supply ship Dongpinghu (Hull 960) sets sail from a naval port in Qingdao of China’s Shandong Province to the Gulf of Aden.

In the past 10 years, the 30 Chinese naval escort taskforces dispatched to the Gulf of Aden were all composed of two battleships and one supply ship. The Chinese PLA Navy sent so many new warships, especially frigates, to the Gulf of Aden that even the most fervent military enthusiasts became indifferent to the choice of warships.

People might still remember that, in the first four and a half years of the escort mission in the Gulf of Aden, the battleships were replaced one group after another, while the supply ships were always chosen among Weishanhu (Hull 887), Qiandaohu (Hull 886), and Qinghaihu (Hull 885). Meaning that, the battleships withdrew after only one term of mission, while the supply ships had to sustain two terms of mission.

During the era of the “supply-ship troika”, the supply ship Qinghaihu (Hull 885) is an old one rebuilt after being introduced from abroad.

Therefore, in those four and a half years, excluding regular maintenance, the three largest supply ships of the Chinese Navy at that time were always conducting escort missions. Although they provided much experience for the later improvement of supply ships of the same types, they served too many escort missions.

On August 8, 2013, the era of the “supply-ship troika” was finally ended by the supply ship Taihu (Hull 889), the first vessel of the Type-903A comprehensive supply ship series.

As China’s ship-building industry has been making rapid progress in recent years, the number of warship types has also increased, including combat support ships that are essential among the ocean-going fleets.

Now there are many supply ships available to take turns serving in the escort missions. The comprehensive supply ship Dongpinghu (Hull 960) serves only one term at a time, with its most recent trip in 2016.

The Taihu (Hull 889), one of China’s most advanced Type 903A supply ships, ends the era of the “supply-ship troika” for the Chinese Navy.

Both Dongpinghu (Hull 960) and Taihu (Hull 889) are Type-903A comprehensive supply ships, updated from the Type-903 series with only two of its kind –Weishanhu (Hull 887) and Qiandaohu (Hull 886).

Supply ships of the Type-903A series have had their displacement increased from 20,000 to 25,000 tons. What’s more, they are able to carry 10,500 tons of vessel/aviation fuel, 250 tons of fresh water, and 680 tons of ammunitions.

Supply ships of the Type-903A series have two sets of liquid material replenishment systems, one set of solid material replenishment system, large cranes on both sides at the mid-ship section, four small boats, a Z-8 ship-borne helicopter, and four pieces of 37mm twin-barreled ship-board artillery systems for self-defense.

The Type-903 series supply ships have greatly improved their replenishment efficiency and are able to conduct alongside, astern, vertical, and skin-to-skin connected replenishment-at-sea at the same time. Therefore, they can carry out underway replenishment missions under more complicated conditions.

The Type-901 comprehensive supply ship Hulunhu (Hull 965) is known as the “nanny of aircraft carriers”.

According to reports, China has completed ten Type-903 supply ships, with one still under construction. Currently, ships of the Type-903 series are not the Chinese Navy’s most advanced supply ships any more. They are no match for the Type-901 series of large scale supply ships that came into service on September 1, 2017.

As seen in previous reports, China has been consistently improving its supply ship building technology. It is believed that, as the Chinese supply ships continue to increase in number and enhance in quality, the Chinese Navy’s combat capability will be further improved.

Disclaimer: The author is a reporter with the Bei Guo Fang Wu. The article is translated from Chinese into English by the China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author from the Bei Guo Fang Wu and do not reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn. Chinamil.com.cn does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.


Analysis of the latest PLAN supply ships and related logistical support:

Andrew S. Erickson and Capt. Christopher P. Carlson, USNR (Ret.), “Sustained Support: the PLAN Evolves its Expeditionary Logistics Strategy,” Jane’s Navy International, 9 March 2016.


As China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy seeks to support sustained operations at distance, Andrew Erickson and Christopher Carlson discuss its strategy and tools for supporting this new international presence

China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has stepped out onto the international scene in recent years with sustained deployments of counter-piracy escort task groups to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden. These deployments, numbering 22 and counting since 26 December 2008, have enabled the PLAN to sustain presence around the Horn of Africa and even deploy onwards into the Mediterranean Sea and beyond. China is now looking to bolster this strategic presence in both scope and scale by investing in supply ships, using Chinese commercial shipping lines, and exploiting its emerging access to commercial ports around the world as it seeks to provide logistics support to deployed naval vessels.

China has never had a sustained overseas presence or foreign basing footprint. Yet it is building a fleet that will enable the PLAN to deploy not only at high intensity in China’s immediate periphery (‘Near Seas’, including the Yellow, East, and South China seas), but also with gradually increasing tempo and regularity throughout the Asia-Pacific region and the Indian Ocean (‘Far Seas’ operations). This ongoing effort, if Beijing seeks for it to become more continuous in nature, will require greater power projection capabilities, as well as enhanced logistics support, and maybe even a long-term presence on foreign soil.

Drawing on the US Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) traditional definition of power projection (as employed in Joint Publication 1-02, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, as amended through 2013) – to rapidly and effectively deploy and sustain forces – the foremost means of China’s power projection in both respects lies in its navy and in the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and PLAN air forces, and in their ability to operate at distance over time. Today, as the necessary force structure to support Chinese objectives vis-à-vis the Near Seas has largely been achieved and China’s shipbuilding and aviation industries have demonstrated an ability to produce advanced ships and aircraft, an effort is under way to progressively increase the numbers of some of the more capable platforms that could be used for Far Seas operations. These include area air-defence destroyers and frigates, replenishment vessels, and fighter aircraft – the last of which will need aircraft carriers or foreign bases to fly from. As the US Navy (USN) knows only too well, expanding bluewater presence and doing more things in more places at once requires a larger, better-supported fleet. …


Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. StrangeSix Years at Sea… and Counting: Gulf of Aden Anti-Piracy and China’s Maritime Commons Presence (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation/Brookings Institution Press, 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.



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 ForceNaval War College Newport Paper 42 (June 2015), 163-79.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Chinese Cooperation to Protect Sea-Lane Security: Antipiracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden,” in Peter A. Dutton and Ryan D. Martinson, eds., Beyond the Wall: Chinese Far Seas Operations, Naval War College China Maritime Study 13, May 2015), 33-41.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin Strange, “China’s Global Maritime Presence: Hard and Soft Dimensions of PLAN Antipiracy Operations,” Jamestown China Brief 15.9 (1 May 2015).

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “China’s Blue Soft Power: Antipiracy, Engagement, and Image Enhancement,” Naval War College Review 68.1 (Winter 2015): 71-91.

爱立信 [Andrew Erickson], “行动中的中国海上力量–亚丁湾反海盗任务综述与展望” [Chinese Sea Power in Action: The Counter-Piracy Mission in the Gulf of Aden—Summary and Outlook], Chapter 7 in 甘浩森 [Roy Kamphausen], 赖大卫 [David Lai], and施道安 [Andrew Scobell], eds., 美军眼里的中国军队: 美国陆军战争学院研究报告 [China’s Military in the Eyes of the U.S. Military: U.S. Army War College Research Report], (Beijing: 世界知识出版社 [World Knowledge Press], 2015), 155-200.           Part 1           Part 2           Volume Information

艾瑞克森 [Andrew S. Erickson] 博士、史崔奇 [Austin M. Strange] 博士生; 譯者: 翟文中 (海軍備役上校) [Translation by Capt. CHAI Wen-Chung, ROC-N (Ret.)], “中國大陸的遠洋軟實力 打擊海盜、國際交往與形象提升(上)” [Mainland China’s Use of Blue Water Soft Power to Combat Piracy, Engage in International Exchanges, and Enhance its Image: Part 1 of 2], 中國大陸軍力 [Defense Technology Monthly] 3 (2015): 64-71.

艾瑞克森 [Andrew S. Erickson] 博士、史崔奇 [Austin M. Strange] 博士生; 譯者: 翟文中 (海軍備役上校) [Translation by Capt. CHAI Wen-Chung, ROC-N (Ret.)], “中國大陸的遠洋軟實力 打擊海盜、國際交往與形象提升(下)” [Mainland China’s Use of Blue Water Soft Power to Combat Piracy, Engage in International Exchanges, and Enhance its Image: Part 2 of 2], 中國大陸軍力 [Defense Technology Monthly] 4 (2015): 42-49.

Andrew Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “China’s Anti-Piracy Mission in the Gulf of Aden: Implications for Anti-Piracy in the South China Sea,” in Wu Shicun and Zou Keyuan, eds., Non-Traditional Security Issues and the South China Sea: Shaping a New Framework for Cooperation (London: Ashgate, 2014), 169-204.     Part 1          Part 2          Volume Information

Andrew S. Erickson, “No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden,” Eight Bells Book Lecture, Naval War College Museum, Newport, RI, 27 February 2014.

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

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Parallel Progress, Positive Potential: Sino-American Cooperation to Further Sea Lane Security in the Gulf of Aden,” China International Strategy Review 2013 (2013): 479-501.          Online Version

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Piracy’s Next Frontier: A Role for China in Gulf of Guinea Security?” The National Interest, 10 December 2013.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden, Naval War College CMSI China Maritime Study 10 (November 2013).

Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange, “China and the International Antipiracy Effort,” The Diplomat, 1 November 2013.

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Pragmatic Partners, the Unsung Story of U.S.-China Anti-Piracy Coordination,” Guest Blog Post for Elizabeth C. Economy, Asia Unbound, Council on Foreign Relations, 24 October 2013.

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

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Learning the Ropes in Blue Water: The Chinese Navy’s Gulf of Aden Deployments Have Borne Worthwhile Lessons in Far-Seas Operations—Lessons that Go Beyond the Antipiracy Mission,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 139.4 (April 2013): 34-38.

Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange, “‘Selfish Superpower’ No Longer? China’s Anti-Piracy Activities and 21st-Century Global Maritime Governance,” Harvard Asia Quarterly, 14.1/2 (Spring/Summer 2012): 92-102.

Andrew S. Erickson, “积极保护航海安全: 中国在亚丁弯海域打击海盗的贡献” [Actively Safeguarding Sea Lane Security: China’s Contribution to Fighting Piracy in the Gulf of Aden],  in 中国孙子兵法研究会 [China Research Society on Sun Tzu’s Art of War], 孙子兵法与和谐世界–第八届孙子兵法国际研讨会论文集 [Sun Tzu’s Art of War and a Harmonious World—Collected Papers from the 8th International  Symposium on Sun Tzu’s Art of War] (Beijing: 军事科学出版社 [Military Science Press], 2010), 616-21.

Andrew S. Erickson, “Chinese Sea Power in Action: the Counter-Piracy Mission in the Gulf of Aden and Beyond,” in Roy Kamphausen, David Lai, and Andrew Scobell, eds., The PLA at Home and Abroad: Assessing the Operational Capabilities of China’s Military (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College and National Bureau of Asian Research, July 2010), 295-376.

Andrew S. Erickson and Justin D. Mikolay, “Welcome China to the Fight Against Pirates,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 135.3 (March 2009): 34-41.