Just after Christmas, two Chinese destroyers and a supply ship left their base in southern China to make the long voyage to Somalia, there to protect Chinese-flagged vessels from pirate attacks. Headed by a Rear Admiral, the PLA Navy flotilla marks the first overseas maritime deployment by China since the 1500s. It also marks a new era in Chinese security activity outside its borders. The Obama administration and America's allies must now take into account China's ability to protect its overseas interests. This may fundamentally change U.S. maritime strategy in the coming years.
The Chinese decided to act after several of their ships were attacked and held for ransom, a fate shared by more than 40 vessels last year that entered the pirate infested waters around Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Since last week, the Chinese have escorted at least seven ships from Hong Kong and the mainland, and have received requests to aid over a dozen more.
The real reason the PLA Navy's flag now flies off the Arabian peninsula is the continuing failure of the international community to engage and effectively respond to the pirate attacks in that region. After a year of attacks, only in the past few weeks have European navies actually begun to confront the threat there to shipping, it was only in December that the United Nations passed a Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against pirates operating at sea and on land, if necessary. Yet it has all been too little too late, and now the Chinese navy is taking its place beside the American, Indian, and Russian navies as a major regional player.
Beijing has promised that its mission will abide by U.N. guidelines, but also said that its vessels will stay as long as necessary to protect Chinese ships. The mission therefore provides the Chinese with an unparalleled opportunity to gain experience in long-term, overseas deployments, as well as numerous chances to learn from more tested, better equipped navies already operating in the Gulf.
On the face of it, that should be nothing to worry about. However, the naval deployment must also be seen in light of China's steady expansion of maritime interests in Asia, including the so-called "string of pearls": a network of bases, ports, and other facilities stretching from the East China Sea all the way to the Arabian Sea.
Whether it be the Gwadar naval base in Pakistan or the Woody Island Airfield in the South China Sea's Paracels Islands, the Chinese are gaining access to strategically important facilities that sit astride the world's major trade routes.
In addition to this forward presence, the PLA Navy has committed itself to developing its naval capabilities as a vital component of China's "comprehensive national power." This includes the intention to build at least one, but maybe as many as five, aircraft carrier groups. Already, China's fleet of 55 submarines is larger than that of any other nation in the region, and has the capability of transiting key transport corridors.
All this means that the United States must now actively incorporate Chinese capabilities into its strategic planning. The preferred approach would be to work with Beijing on issues of common interest, such as the piracy problem. But so far the Chinese seem unwilling to provide the types of public goods, in this case protection of non-Chinese vessels, which the U.S. Navy has routinely provided for decades. China's overseas activities are limited to its own interests, and that could lead to political tension between China and other maritime powers.
In addition, Washington has to consider the effect of China's new capabilities on its allies and friends in maritime Asia. The Taiwanese, Japanese, South Koreans, Singaporeans, and Australians all watch China's maritime growth warily. Tokyo hopes to send its own naval vessels to the Horn of Africa, and is feeling greater pressure to do so because of the Chinese expedition. An intensified naval race could be extremely destabilizing to Asia, but the only way to avoid one is to figure out a way to have China scale back its activities, which is unlikely, or formalize China's participation in maritime multilateral initiatives.
That is going to require innovative thinking on the part of the Obama administration, which must above all assure America's friends that the U.S. Navy will retain its maritime superiority across the region. As China just proved, any vacuum will be filled, and not always in ways that lead to long-term stability.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.