China projects naval power in pirate fight
Its warships and special forces are due in the Gulf of Aden by Jan. 6.
China's dispatch of two warships to help battle Somalian pirates has drawn an ambivalent global reaction – a sign of the decidedly mixed feelings toward its bid for big-power status.Skip to next paragraph
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Two destroyers and a supply ship steamed out of a southern Chinese port Friday, on China's first patrol and potential combat mission beyond Chinese waters. The ships are due to reach the Gulf of Aden by Jan. 6 and carry 870 crew members, including 70 elite Navy special forces trained in close combat and helicopter-borne raids, according to the China Daily newspaper.
Two days earlier, a Chinese defense official, at a rare press conference, gave one of the clearest indications yet that China plans to build an aircraft carrier.
The developments reflect China's determination to boost its sea power, in line with its rising economic and political clout.
"Now we have more overseas interests and activities, so that's why we need a stronger force on the oceans," says Peng Guangqian, a military expert in Beijing.
The United States frets about how a bulked-up Chinese Navy might complicate a Taiwan conflict scenario. But it welcomed the decision to join amultinational naval "posse" battling Somalian brigands, who have turned waters off east Africa into a hazardous pirates' alley and wreaked havoc on world trade. Still, some of China's Asian neighbors have expressed concern about its naval muscle-flexing.
China: reclaiming great-power status
In China itself, the Somalia mission is seen as a natural outgrowth of its return to great-power status. China is increasingly reliant on foreign oil and other commodities – much of it transported by sea – to fuel its booming economy. The International Energy Agency reported that China imported half of its oil last year, and the agency expects that ratio to rise to 75 percent by 2030.
In a worst-case scenario, China is at the mercy of the US navy, the world's dominant sea power for the foreseeable future. Chinese military planners are all too aware that the US could conceivably throttle China's energy imports – just as it once did to Japan before World War II.
All the more reason for China to move from a "brown-water" to "blue-water" navy – which is to say, from a limited naval force patrolling China's own territorial waters, to one that can project power thousands of miles away. Enter the modern aircraft carrier battle group.
"China's navy is not good enough to meet the needs of China's maritime security, so I think it's necessary to build an aircraft carrier," says Mr. Peng, the military expert.
Neighbors cast a wary eye
But China's naval expansion makes some jittery – particularly in Japan and India. "Both are rivals of the Chinese," says Joshua Ho, an expert on maritime security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. "Hence, any increase in China's naval assets or its ability to deploy long-range would be viewed as a threat to their own security."
India has its own great-power ambitions and Japan is concerned that "its influence in the region will wane," Mr. Ho explains.
Japan worries about a growing clash of interests as China's interest increasingly overlap with its own "exclusive economic zone."
A China with a heavily armed, oceangoing navy, "would be very dangerous for Japan, because China has many hidden intentions," says Hideaki Kaneda, a retired vice admiral and now the director of the Okazaki Institute in Tokyo. "Japan needs to keep a strict watch on Chinese movements."