China’s 27th and 28th naval escort task forces have recently completed their mission handover in the Gulf of Aden. Anti-piracy operations by the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have become a constant in the area. And this has both immediate and long-term strategic implications for Beijing’s military projection away from its traditional perimeter of action in East Asia.
China started patrolling waters off the Horn of Africa and the Somali coast in 2008, marking the return of a robust Chinese navy in the western Indian Ocean after nearly 600 years. These counter-piracy activities have boosted the PLAN’s ability to deploy in the “far seas.” Beijing is eager to improve expeditionary capabilities of its naval forces. It has made clear it is ready to protect its increasing overseas interests and rights, particularly international routes vital to Chinese trade and energy needs.
A stable presence in the Indian Ocean
The European Union’s anti-piracy mission in the Arabian Sea reports that at the peak of Somali piracy in January 2011, pirates held 736 hostages and 32 vessels. After efforts by the international community, those figures were cut to zero in 2016. The PLAN played a significant role in this multilateral action coordinated by the United Nations.
Since the beginning of its anti-piracy operation, the PLAN has escorted more than 6,400 Chinese and foreign ships, according to China Military, the PLA’s official English-language website. What’s more, the Chinese navy has so far prevented about 3,000 suspected pirate boats from launching attacks, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said in a report last October.
A Chinese naval task force in the Gulf of Aden generally consists of two guided-missile frigates and a supply ship. These are supported by two ship-based helicopters and 700 troops, including dozens of Special Operations forces. To make a comparison, the EU-led naval mission in the region normally comprises about 1,200 personnel, four to six surface combat vessels, a replenishment ship, some embarked helicopters and two to three maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft.
The PLAN’s anti-piracy operations can now rely on China’s first overseas military base. Beijing says the Djibouti outpost is only a logistics station. It will have to support its escort, peacekeeping and humanitarian activities in Africa and Western Asia.
Djibouti is a tiny nation in the Horn of Africa. Located at the entrance of the Red Sea, it serves as a gateway between the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal. This area is a key segment of China’s Maritime Silk Road, the sea-based leg of President Xi Jinping’s infrastructure plan to integrate East Asia with Europe and Africa.
China also has a logistics support base in the midst of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the PLAN uses the supply ship engaged in the escort operations in the Gulf of Aden as a mobile supply point for other Chinese warships sailing through this body of water. Such a logistical mode was initiated last July when the Chinese supply ship Gaoyouhu, included in the 26th convoy fleet, refueled the destroyer Hefei and the frigate Yuncheng on their way to the Baltic Sea to conduct military exercises with the Russian Navy.
Training expeditionary capabilities
While peacekeeping operations in Africa and elsewhere are an invaluable training experience for Chinese ground troops, escort missions in the western section of the Indian Ocean are fundamental to develop the PLAN’s expeditionary capacities, notably if China organizes its naval units as carrier strike groups in the future.
As well, the PLAN’s voyages to the Gulf of Aden are conducive to honing the skills of embryonic Chinese battle groups in reaching the Indian Ocean through the Makassar, Sunda and Lombok straits, which could be safer and more suitable for the transit of large warships than the Malacca chokepoint during a conflict or a crisis threatening China’s sea lines of communication – a scenario that would likely see Beijing face an enemy blockade of these passages.
However, for the creation of a powerful expeditionary naval force to succeed, China will also have to improve long-range airpower in support of its ocean-going task forces, set up an underwater surveillance network in the Indo-Pacific region like that run by the United States, and increase the number of overseas bases and access points in East Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia.
The development of the Xian H-20 stealth long-range bomber and the expanding use of an underwater glider for deep-sea explorations in the Indian Ocean, along with the focus on Gwadar, Pakistan, as a possible site for its second offshore naval facility, prove that Beijing is leaving nothing to chance in building its blue-water navy.