China Mission Draws Scrutiny

China's naval mission to fight piracy in the Gulf of Aden draws mixed reactions from U.S. experts.
By Michael Lelyveld
2008-12-30
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BOSTON--China's decision to fight piracy off the coast of Somalia has mixed implications for the United States, analysts say.

Security experts and officials have welcomed China's participation in international efforts to guard shipping against pirates in the Gulf of Aden, but they also raise concerns about a possible buildup in Chinese naval power.

On Dec. 18, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao confirmed that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) would send two destroyers and a support ship from the port of Sanya on Hainan Island, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

The destroyers would carry two helicopters, 800 sailors, and 70 special forces officers, Chinese officials said. The three ships set sail on Dec. 26, marking modern China's first naval deployment outside Pacific waters.

China reacted after a wave of recent pirate attacks and ransom demands against commercial vessels from countries including Russia, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia, as well as China.

Seven ships involving Chinese interests or crews have been attacked in the past year, ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on Dec. 23.

Contribution welcomed

Countries including the United States, Canada, France, India, and Russia have been patrolling the transit route near the Suez Canal in an attempt to end rampant piracy. China's contribution to the effort has been largely welcomed.

"I hope the Chinese do [send ships to the Gulf of Aden], and we'll work closely with them," U.S. Navy Admiral Timothy Keating told reporters in Washington on Dec. 18, according to AFP News.

Keating, who heads the U.S. Pacific Command, said the Chinese mission "could be a springboard for a resumption of dialogue between PLA forces and U.S. Pacific Command forces." China suspended military-to-military contacts in October following a protest against U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Analysts have debated for years over whether China's naval forces should help to patrol shipping lanes that form the lifelines of its foreign trade and oil supplies in pirate-prone choke points like the Straits of Malacca. Much of that burden now falls to the United States.

Robert Ebel, senior adviser to the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told Radio Free Asia that U.S. interests in China's military presence would be mixed.

"I think we would have no choice but to say that we're glad to see that the Chinese are involved in helping to keep the straits open for commerce, without really mentioning why the Chinese are there," said Ebel.

Long-term risks

Despite positive statements, the projection of Chinese naval power has inevitable implications for Taiwan's security. Although relations have recently warmed with the establishment of direct air and shipping links between Beijing and Taiwan, the development of PLA naval capability could raise risks for the long term, Ebel said.

"Probably, it's a good step for the Chinese to get involved. But whether they use that involvement to develop their own naval power, that's where I begin to worry," he said.

The mixed interests may be reflected in a Keating interview with the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), posted on its website at www.cfr.org on Dec. 12, shortly before the announcement of the PLA's mission to the Gulf of Aden.

"I think it's a giant leap of faith to think that in the near to mid-term, we as a nation and the policy makers in particular would regard China as a partner, particularly on a [military-to-military] basis," said Keating.

"That said, we hope that in the mid to long-term we can be closer to that consideration than we are today," said the admiral. Keating cited the need for more transparency from China, a better understanding of its intentions and more active cooperation.

Carrier planned

Reactions have also been mixed because China has taken the occasion to confirm its interest in building an aircraft carrier, a long-awaited step that could signal its most serious ambition toward power projection to date.

At a PLA press conference on Dec. 23, Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Huang Xueping said China is "seriously considering" a carrier for its fleet, the Wall Street Journal reported.

"The aircraft carrier is a symbol of a country's overall national strength, as well as the competitiveness of the country's naval force," Huang said.

Over the years, China has acquired four ageing or derelict carriers, including three former-Soviet vessels and one from Australia. The ships have been used largely for non-military purposes such as floating theme parks or scrap.

But China drew international scrutiny of its intentions when it cleaned and repainted the unfinished Russian aircraft carrier Varyag in 2005, the official Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported last year. China has been trying to build shipboard fighter aircraft based on Russian models, the Russian daily Vedomosti said in November.

In his CFR interview, Admiral Keating suggested that China may be using the Varyag for research and development purposes.

"So, to get to the larger issue of does China want to pursue the capabilities inherent in an aircraft carrier or a navy that has aircraft carrier capability? I believe they do," Keating said.

Balancing interests

Adam Segal, CFR's senior fellow for China studies, told RFA that the U.S. reaction to China's announcements is a matter of balancing strategic interests.

"We want to cooperate with the Chinese military, we want greater transparency, we want confidence-building measures. At the same time, we do have these concerns about improving capabilities and power projection," Segal said.

For the present, the U.S. emphasis is on improving cooperation because China's ability to project naval power remains in the more distant future, said Segal. The Chinese navy managed its first nighttime landing of a helicopter on the deck of a destroyer only four years ago, according to a 2004 report in the official People's Daily.

But China's naval development may tip the balance of U.S. policy toward security concerns as China's capability increases.

"This is emblematic of the whole relationship," Segal said. "We're going to continue moving forward on both these tracks, and we're going to try to decide when that inflection point is reached when we start becoming more worried about these new capabilities."

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