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.
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."
Mr. Kaneda says he sees China advancing further and further east and cites "provocative" actions such as China's recent dispatching of two survey ships near the disputed Senkaku islands. He says the Somalia mission is a good "cover story" for China. The real purpose, he claims: "The PLA navy is now an ocean-going navy, so it must show the flag on the international stage."
Citing several Chinese submarine intrusions into Japan's waters, Katsuhisa Furukawa, of Tokyo's Research Institute of Science and Technology for Society, says China's military doesn't adhere to "international norms" – and that it's not sufficiently transparent about the intent behind its rapid naval buildup.
"China has so many faces," says Mr. Furukawa. "It's [Japan's] largest economic partner, but also a potential competitor on the international political stage, and a possible military threat.... There are deeply-rooted concerns in India about the future direction of China, and the same is true of Japan."
China's ships have made friendly visits to Indian ports for a couple of decades, and the two conduct regular joint exercises. But India takes a dim view of China's cooperation with archrival Pakistan. And some fear China's visits could quickly turn into a permanent naval presence, limiting India's elbow room in its own backyard.
"Beijing is ... signaling a new political will to use military force far beyond its shores," stated a Dec. 22 commentary in the Indian Express. "This, in turn, is bound to constrict India's own freedom of naval action in the Indian Ocean.... As China's shadow darkens over the Indian Ocean, the government must get its diplomats and sailors to work together as never before."
Taiwan is watching carefully, too, since naval power would be critical to any Chinese military move against the island. A stronger Chinese navy could blockade the island and deter the US military from coming to Taiwan's aid in the event of war. Much of China's naval shopping spree in recent years has focused on just such a contingency, with a rapid increase in attack submarines (estimated by the Pentagon in 2007 to number about 60); amphibious landing vehicles; and state-of-the-art, Russian-built destroyers.
A chance to cooperate
For the moment, though, most are choosing to see the Chinese navy's coming-out party as an opportunity, rather than a threat. The US, for one, is eager to patch up ties with the Chinese military, which were frayed when Washington released a massive $6.5 billion weapons package to Taiwan in October.
In fact, Somali pirates may have achieved what Washington and other foreign capitals could not: providing an opportunity for more military cooperation between China and its global peers. "Somalian piracy is a problem for the whole world, and both India and China are victims," says Arvind Kumar, an expert on Asian navies at Manipal University. "To fight the problem, countries have to work together."
China, for its part, is trying to allay concerns. It emphasizes that the Somalia mission is under the auspices of the United Nations, and notes its growing duties to help maintain international security (in fact, China was the last of the UN Security Council's five major powers to deploy ships in the pirate fight).
It's also stressing the need to protect Chinese ships and crew, after a recent incident in which Chinese crewmembers fought off Somalian hijackers with Molotov cocktails and makeshift water cannons.
China's naval development is "in line with" China's international obligations and its need to "cope with various security threats," Huang Xueping, a Chinese defense ministry spokesman, told CCTV. He said the Chinese military had forged many international ties in recent years, citing its joint exercises with 20 countries, and the more than 10,000 Chinese peacekeepers on 18 UN missions. But he admitted more was needed.
"We need the world to understand China better and to open China up more to the outside world," said Mr. Huang.