Published 12 Mar 09
by J. Peter Pham, Ph.D.
World Defense Review columnist
The Chinese Navy's Somali Cruise
Since the beginning of January, three vessels of China's People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) – the Guangzhou-class destroyer Wuhan, the Lanzhou-class destroyer Haikou, and the Qiandahou-class supply ship Weishanhu – have been operating in the Gulf of Aden and other waters off as part of a worldwide naval mobilization against the Somali pirates whose attacks, as I warned in this column three weeks ago, are more likely to increase in the coming months, notwithstanding the attention which the international community has focused on the problem. The piracy certainly provides the People's Republic of China (PRC) with a legitimate reason for dispatching the flotilla. At the end of December, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told the International Herald Tribune's Mark McDonald that seven of the 1,265 Chinese vessels which passed through those waters in 2008 had been attacked; one of them, the Tianyu No. 8, a Chinese fishing boat whose capture along with its crew of twenty-four (including sixteen Chinese nationals) I reported here last November, was only released last month after its owners paid an undisclosed ransom.
Thus, on the face of it, the dispatch of the PLAN flotilla is completely understandable. Six months ago in a column attempting to draw attention to the crisis before the hijacking of the MV Faina with its cargo of thirty-three refurbished Russian-designed T-72 tanks, grenade launchers, anti-aircraft guns, and other armaments made it front-page news worldwide, I observed that "in addition to other commerce, some 11 percent of world's seaborne petroleum – some 3.3 million barrels – must pass through the very waters currently infested with the Somali pirates." China, however, is even more vulnerable to this threat. As I likewise reported here last year, "the PRC sources about one-third of all its energy needs to Africa, with perhaps one-quarter of its African oil imports originating in Sudan's oilfields" – and all of this is exported via the Marsa al-Bashair terminal near Port Sudan, from whence it must transit on tankers down the Red Sea and through the narrow Bab-el-Mandab straits – 2-mile-wide Bab Iskender and 16-mile-wide Dact-el-Mayun – into the Gulf of Aden, where the pirates await them. And even if vessels do not need to pass through this choke point, the seizure in November of a supertanker loaded with two million barrels of Saudi oil, the Liberian-registered MV Sirius Star, simply underscores a different Chinese vulnerability: Saudi Arabia is China's top supplier of petroleum, exporting 720,000 barrels a day to the PRC in 2008, a figure that will more than double to 1.5 million barrels a day by 2015, according to a study last month by John Sfakianakis, chief economist at the Saudi British Bank.
However, as I argued here two weeks ago, "while the two dozen or so cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and other surface combat vessels which various countries have dispatched to the region ... have made for great political theater and may have even proven useful in escort duty along narrowly defined sea lanes, there are simply not enough of them to make a real dent in the operations of the pirates." Hence there must be considerations, political and otherwise, beyond any marginal tactical utility motivating the launching of the PLAN's first major operation abroad. As the annual threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community which Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair delivered to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last month: "China's international behavior is driven by a combination of domestic priorities, primarily maintaining economic prosperity and domestic stability, and a longstanding ambition to see China play the role of a great power in East Asia and globally."
First, there are domestic political considerations. While the Chinese military establishment does not have to worry about the public accountability that its counterparts in democracies must concern themselves with, nonetheless high-profile missions like the deployment to the strategic waterways of the western Indian Ocean can help it to justify to the civilian leadership spending increases like the 14.9 percent jump in the official military budget for 2009 over last year's spending in the current global economic climate. In fact, as Reuters reported last week, in presenting the budget before the opening of the annual session of the National People's Congress, parliamentary spokesman Li Zhaoxing, a former foreign minister, specifically cited "enhancing the military's emergency response capabilities in disaster relief, fighting terrorism, maintaining stability and other non-warfare military operations" like the counter-piracy deployment as reasons for the double-digit rise at a time when, as The Economist recently observed, thousands of factories on the mainland were shutting down for want of business and, as the Brookings Institution's Cheng Li writes in the current issue of Foreign Policy, President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders are worried that "if China is no longer able to maintain a high growth rate or provide jobs for its ever growing labor force, massive public dissatisfaction and social unrest could erupt."
Second, China's leaders are constrained to maintain appearances abroad. With the navies of a number of other reemerging or rising powers, including Russia, India, and the first-ever joint European Union naval operation away from Europe, heading for the Gulf of Aden, the PLAN's absence would have conspicuous, especially since the PRC occupies a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council which, in no fewer than four resolutions last year, called upon "States interested in the security of maritime activities to take part actively in the fight against piracy on the high seas off the coast of Somalia." While it is well and fine for President Hu to visit four African nations – Mali, Senegal, Tanzania, and Mauritius – during his first trip abroad this year (he also stopped in Saudi Arabia), the African partners Beijing has been assiduously cultivating also want to see concrete commitments to their security priorities. Moreover, as the commander of Chinese naval forces, Admiral Wu Shengli, acknowledged in an interview with the official Xinhua news agency before the send-off for the flotilla: "The expedition will show China's active attitude in maintaining the world's peace and safety. It could also embody the Navy's resolution and capacity to accomplish diversified military missions to deal with multiple threats to national security." And, reiterating China's commitment to the specific mission off Somalia, the People's Daily reported this week that PLAN deputy chief of staff Rear Admiral Zhang Deshun disclosed for the first time that the deployment would be ongoing with the current flotilla, which had completed 110 patrols as of this past weekend, being relieved in late April or early May: "We feel this is not a short mission. The length of the mission depends on the Somali political situation and whether Somali pirates can be eventually kept away." Admiral Zhang also some officers and sailors from the first deployment would stay over to transfer their experience to their replacements.
Third, the deployment has also given the PRC an opportunity to assert its military umbrella not only over its recently reclaimed territories of Hong Kong and Macau, but also over what Beijing views as the breakaway province of Taiwan. According to the Chinese Communist Party's official newspaper, China Daily, "the fleet will protect Chinese vessels and crews, including those from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan, that seek protection when passing through the area, as well as foreign ships on request." As could have anticipated, the declaration caused no little consternation on Taiwan, to say the least, especially after it became public that a boat own by the Formosa Plastics Group, a Taiwanese conglomerate with interests in biotechnology, petrochemical processing, and the manufacture of electronics, had received an escort from the PLAN flotilla.
Fourth, the vessels dispatched on the mission – respectively, a Guangzhou-class multirole missile destroyer launched in 2004, a Lanzhou-class destroyer launched in 2003, and a Qiandahou-class supply ship launched in 2004 – represent the modern PLAN as well as China's domestic naval industry at their best. The captains and crews all have experience in the international spotlight. For example, two years ago, the supply ship currently accompanying the Somali flotilla, the Weishanhu, accompanied the destroyer Guangzhou on port calls to Russia, Great Britain, Spain, and France. The State Council defense white paper, China's National Defense in 2008, released in January, declared that: "Since the beginning of the new century, in view of the characteristics and laws of local maritime wars in conditions of informationization [sic], the Navy has been striving to improve in an all round way its capabilities of integrated offshore operations, strategic deterrence and strategic counterattacks, and to gradually develop its capabilities of conducting cooperation in distant waters and countering non-traditional security threats, so as to push forward the overall transformation of the service." The deployment, in a certain respect, is a demonstration to the world of how far China has come in meeting these objectives.
Fifth, even as it shows itself off to other navies, the deployment gives the PLAN an unparalleled opportunity to observe the operations and tactics of other fleets up close in relatively tight quarters. U.S.-led coalition vessels in Combined Task Force 151 (CTF 151), which was stood up in mid-January with the mandate of focusing solely on counter-piracy operations in and around the Gulf of Aden, currently include the Ticonderoga-class Aegis guided missile cruiser USS Vella Gulf, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mahan, and the Royal Navy's Type 23-frigate HMS Portland. These ships will soon be joined by the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group – the Nimitz-class nuclear supercarrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers USS Gettysburg and USS Vicksburg, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Halyburton, the Henry J. Kaiser-class replenishment oiler USNS Big Horn, and the Lewis and Clark-class dry cargo ship USNS Sacagawea – and its eight air squadrons. Russia has the nuclear-powered Kirov-class battlecruiser RFS Pyotr Velikiy ("Peter the Great"), flagship of the North Fleet, deployed to the area. And naval elements from some of China's East Asian neighbors, including South Korea and Japan, may be coming soon.
Sixth, the Chinese navy now has a reason to do in the maritime environment off the east coast of Africa what the 1,636 PLA personnel assigned to six UN peacekeeping missions in Africa – more than the four other permanent members of the Security Council combined – have been doing: achieving a level of tactical and operational familiarity with the African environment that few other outside countries have mastered since the end of the colonial period. (See my October 25, 2007 analysis on Chinese participation in peacekeeping missions in Africa.)
Seventh, while it is far from the most pressing reason for sending a flotilla to the waters off Somalia, Chinese leaders and others will not be unaware of the stake the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has attempted to acquire in the country's potential petroleum deposits through a deal struck with Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed, then head of the faltering "Transitional Federal Government" (see my August 14, 2007 report on the affair). While there is no question of trying to pursue any claims, much less attempting any further explorations given, as I chronicled last month, the current state of anarchy and slow collapse of the shaking remnants of the interim authority, now under Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed, of the Somali deployment is a success, what is to say that another Chinese naval force could not return one day in a different show of force to "facilitate" recognition of the earlier accord?
Eighth, while the deployment can be interpreted as proof of the PRC's increasing willingness to bear its share of the burden for the maintenance of the freedom of the seas and other global commons – American policymakers have long complained about China's "free ride" on the security framework which the United States provides – that same engagement might also signal something not quite as benign. Two years ago, referring to a 1993 incident when the U.S. Navy stopped and detained a Chinese container ship thought to be carrying chemical weapons materials to Iran (none were ultimately found after a three week stand-off), one of China's most influential strategists, Zhang Wenmu, made a case for a globally-deployed, assertive naval capacity which deserves to be quoted in full:
Wherever China's interests lead, there too must follow China's capabilities to protect those interests. And as the nation's economic interests expand into the global market, China must consider the problem of safeguarding its global and regional interests. The most crucial conduit connecting China with the region and with the rest of the world is the sea lanes, and therefore, China must have a powerful navy. The oil imports that China consumes from Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia will mainly pass through these sea lanes. China's trade is also 90 percent dependent on sea lane transport. If all goes well and other nations behave fairly, China will certainly act in accordance with WTO rules. But what if others don't act so fairly? It is not difficult for the West to find a pretext to impose sanctions on China. The Yinhe incident in 1993 is a classic case of how the United States has attempted to make an issue out of nothing. Precisely because China's navy did not have the capability to resist, China had little choice but to let them board the ship to make the so-called inspections. In an era when development is the core national interest, China would secure nothing if it did not have a strong navy.
The determining factor shaping the rise and fall of a country ultimately is not just the size of its total economic volume but also the strategic ability of the country; that is, the ability to use national forces to achieve political goals. Many cases in history have shown that the main reason for a country to be strong is more than a rise in prosperity or technological advancement but the effective application of such technology and wealth in national politics, especially military power ...
In the current era, where maritime transportation is a key factor to success of the flow of goods and commodities for the globalized economy, a powerful navy able to effectively control the sea passages will receive increasingly greater attention by all nations, particularly China.
The incident earlier this week whereby five Chinese ships, including a (PLAN) intelligence vessel, shadowed and blocked an unarmed civilian-manned American oceanographic ship, USNS Impeccable, operating in international waters south under the authority of the Military Sealift Command, is disconcerting, following as it does on the harassment, again in international waters, of another unarmed U.S. civilian ship, USNS Victorious, just last week by a Chinese patrol boat. These incidents are a reminder of the challenges that the United States and its allies can expect from a resurgent China shaking off what it views as the humiliating stain of colonialism on what is otherwise a millennial history of imperial glory. While alarmism contributes nothing to strategic analysis, neither is reflexive irenicism a particularly useful policy perspective. Hence, occasioned by these unfortunate incidents, American policymakers and analysts need to take another closer look at the recent deployment of a PLAN flotilla to the already crowded waters off the eastern coast of Africa, trying to understand China's strategic calculus and discerning its implications for American interests, both in the region and beyond. Hysteria may be out of order, but prudent caution is still called for.
— J. Peter Pham is Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. He is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., as well as Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). In addition to the study of terrorism and political violence, his research interests lie at the intersection of international relations, international law, political theory, and ethics, with particular concentrations on the implications for United States foreign policy and African states as well as religion and global politics.
Dr. Pham is the author of over two hundred essays and reviews on a wide variety of subjects in scholarly and opinion journals on both sides of the Atlantic and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. Among his recent publications are Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press, 2004), which has been critically acclaimed by Foreign Affairs, Worldview, Wilson Quarterly, American Foreign Policy Interests, and other scholarly publications, and Child Soldiers, Adult Interests: The Global Dimensions of the Sierra Leonean Tragedy (Nova Science Publishers, 2005).
In addition to serving on the boards of several international and national think tanks and journals, Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress and conducted briefings or consulted for both Congressional and Executive agencies. He is also a frequent contributor to National Review Online's military blog, The Tank.
© 2009 J. Peter Pham
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