China’s Global Maritime Presence: Hard and Soft Dimensions of PLAN Antipiracy Operations

Publication: China Brief Volume: 15 Issue: 9

PLA Navy ships conduct patrols in the Gulf of Aden. (Credit: Xinhua)

Nearing the Twilight of Somali Antipiracy?

The global antipiracy mission off Somalia, a hallmark for collective 21st-century international security, is gradually moving toward a close. There have been no successful Somali pirate attacks since 2012 and, barring a sudden spike in violence, navies may start exiting the Gulf of Aden within the next few years. [1]

Like many states, China has been an important victim and respondent concerning Somali piracy. Over the past six-plus years, its antipiracy operations have helped stabilize waters off Somalia, while helping secure some of China’s purported 1.2 million workers and $500 billion in investments overseas. [2] Meanwhile, China’s navy has accrued important operational skills supporting “hard” naval strength while engaging in far-reaching “soft” military diplomacy.

Gulf of Aden operations are not over yet. This May, a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) rear admiral will assume multi-month command of Combined Task Force (CTF)-151, U.S.-led multinational naval taskforce and one of the “big three” multinational antipiracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden. Tokyo’s temporary leadership may discourage Beijing from withdrawing antipiracy forces in the near term to avoid being perceived as a less responsible Asia-Pacific power, though China’s calculus is probably based much more heavily on other considerations. [3]

Since Gulf of Aden deployments will not persist indefinitely, however, it is time to reflect on the implications of China’s experience therein. What has China achieved over the past six years through antipiracy operations? Has the global fight against maritime piracy enlarged China’s global naval presence? Finally, what will China’s global naval presence resemble in the post-Gulf of Aden era?

China’s Hard and Soft Antipiracy Achievements to Date

Beijing’s antipiracy mission has matured. Between December 2008 and early 2015, on the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) first long-range multi-year deployment, over 16,000 PLAN sailors as well as 1,300 marines and special operations forces personnel served in the Gulf of Aden (China Daily, February 12). While PLAN antipiracy taskforces interface and often cooperate with other naval forces in the region, their primary task is escorting commercial ships, roughly half Chinese-flagged. To date, approximately 6,000 commercial vessels have enjoyed PLAN escort. 20 PLAN taskforces have completed a total of over 800 convoys.

Deterring and occasionally fighting piracy off Somalia, the PLAN has accumulated unprecedented operational experience. Over 30 warships—half the PLAN’s destroyers, frigates and helicopters; and nearly all its replenishment ships—have thus gained Far Seas experience (China Daily, February 12). PLAN maritime logistics systems have been tested, sometimes strenuously, by antipiracy deployments in unfamiliar waters that can last up to six months. Beyond the operations themselves, Gulf of Aden experience is a valuable resume booster for PLAN high-level officers and sailors seeking career promotion upon their return home. 

Below the surface, where no pirates lurk and no publics can see, China is gaining particularly vital experience. India has expressed concern over China’s deployment of conventional- and nuclear-powered submarines in conjunction with its surface antipiracy escort taskforces. Deputy Chief of Naval Operations Vice Admiral Jo Mulloy testified recently that Chinese submarines had, to date, “three deployments in the Indian Ocean.” [4] Apparently accompanying PLAN task forces at least part of the way, from December 13, 2013, to February 12, 2014, a Shang-class (Type 093) nuclear-powered attack submarine navigated near Sri Lanka and into the Persian Gulf, transiting the Strait of Malacca on the way to and from its home port on Hainan Island (China Military Online, September 24, 2014). A Song-class (Type 039) conventional submarine visited Colombo, Sri Lanka on September 7–14, 2014. [5] Finally, in an effort to combine submarine logistics with naval diplomacy, a submarine tender Changxingdao generated fresh water to alleviate a shortage in the Maldives capital of Male in December 2014, an expensive but politically visible way to provide such aid (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, December 8, 2014).

Submarines aside, the marginal “hard” benefits to the PLAN, particularly insights gained from China’s first institutionalized distant seas naval operations, may be diminishing slightly as operations enter their seventh year. But China has intensified in both sophistication and geography the diplomatic, or “soft,” side of its antipiracy activities.

Somali piracy has provided navies, including the PLAN, with strong justification for establishing semi-regular access points for logistical antipiracy support. Even if these arrangements have only been informally institutionalized, they have nonetheless established routine interactions among the PLAN and dozens of foreign navies and governments. In the name of antipiracy, the PLAN has docked in foreign countries over 120 times in the past seventy-five months. Half of all Chinese antipiracy port calls have officially been for ship and personnel replenishment. Stops in Djibouti, Oman, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen for replenishment and overhaul, for instance, have accounted for roughly half of all PLAN antipiracy port calls. China’s navy has also made return stops to countries including South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and the United Arab Emirates. The other half have primarily been friendly visits, though often the PLAN engages in both replenishment and diplomacy during a single stop.

Interestingly, there is a strong correlation between where Chinese antipiracy warships have docked ashore and Chinese-funded port development projects in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Some examples of Chinese foreign port construction according to Chinese and international media reports include Kenya’s Lamu, Myanmar’s Kyaukphyu, Pakistan’s Karachi, Sri Lanka’s Hambantota, Sri Lanka’s Colombo and Namibia’s Walvis Bay. Chinese firms are reportedly engaged in maritime port construction in many countries the PLAN has called on during antipiracy operations. Such developments could intensify as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s New Silk Road, or “One Belt, One Road” initiative, an ambitious, two-pronged framework for economic engagement between China and other states along the continental Silk Road Economic Belt and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road (see China Brief, March 19).

As has been documented extensively, China is adamant that its overseas access points, whether used for antipiracy or other security initiatives, are not tantamount to overseas military bases in the traditional Western sense. At a minimum, while commercial interests may explain much of the spike in China’s overseas port construction projects, increasingly fixed access points serve as useful platforms for military diplomacy. If China chooses to follow previous great navies in robust blue water development, their enhancement into more capable facilities will be essential.

In addition, China has repeatedly leveraged the flexibility of having sustained distant sea antipiracy operations to contribute to other security initiatives. In March 2011, a frigate from the 7th escort taskforce helped with the evacuation of Chinese citizens from Libya. A ship serving in the PLAN’s 16th taskforce was temporarily excused from antipiracy operations to help escort Danish and Norwegian ships transporting chemical weapons out of Syria. Last year, the 17th escort taskforce departed China ten days early to assist the search party in the aftermath of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370’s disappearance off Malaysia. Most recently, all three vessels from the 19th taskforce ceased escort operations entirely for 109 hours to evacuate Chinese citizens, and at least ten foreign countries, from Yemen (see China Brief, April 3). In short, well into year seven, Beijing’s multiyear presence off Somalia affords it a multitude of chances to contribute to widely recognized international maritime security initiatives. The international community should welcome such positive contributions.

Antipiracy and China’s Global Naval Presence

These experiences make the eventual end of international antipiracy efforts off Somalia all the more intriguing for China. Multinational antipiracy efforts led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union, for instance, are scheduled to run at least through December 2016. While there is no public consensus on when various navies will withdraw from the region, the cross-national mission is arguably becoming less valuable. Multilateral naval patrols and escorts, as opposed to other approaches such as land-based strikes against pirate bases, has been and remains an expensive approach with little execution or long-term impact. Oceans Beyond Piracy estimates that in 2013 the international community spent over $3 billion on antipiracy, over $130 million for every attack thwarted. Naval operations presumably represent a large subcomponent of this aggregate estimate. Much debate exists on whether the naval missions CTF 151 (China’s affiliation), NATO’s Ocean Shield and EUNAVFOR (“the big three”) will terminate or scale back operations after 2016, given the decline in successful attacks by pirates.

Logistical requirements for antipiracy off Somalia likewise confront Chinese decision-makers. The Gulf of Aden is over 4,000 nautical miles from China’s eastern coast and takes between 10 and 14 days for escort taskforces to sail there, meaning a round-trip voyage requires nearly a month. Beijing’s most pressing, challenging naval requirements remain centered on the East and South China Seas.

Yet with interests and capabilities expanding overall, China will almost certainly play new roles in future maritime antipiracy. While Somali buccaneers have inspired the majority of antipiracy dialogues over the past decade, piracy has been rising steadily in other regions, including Africa’s opposite coast. Following the international community’s protracted fight in the Gulf of Aden, the Gulf of Guinea has emerged as the world’s most pirate-infested region. There pirates increasingly target drilling platforms, oil tankers and other high-value assets that often lack adequate protection. The Gulf of Guinea is further away from China than Aden. Nonetheless, Chinese commercial flows around West Africa, with local and international partners, are steadily increasing. Moreover, Chinese citizens have been attacked several times in the past five years in the Gulf of Guinea (see China Brief, January 9).

Given China and Gulf of Guinea coastal states’ sovereignty sensitivities, and the latter’s “limited capacity and coordination problems,” Chinese assistance toward fighting piracy in the Gulf of Guinea will likely involve “behind the scenes” support. The extent of Chinese involvement is contingent on whether the intensity of piracy persists, support from international law—or at least China’s interpretation thereof—and regional states’ explicit requests. A specific limitation: straightjacketed by Beijing’s cautious policies, PLAN task forces currently lack the authority to prosecute pirates, and would need to transfer them rapidly to “a proper receiving country.” [6] Initially, Beijing will likely focus on providing aid, equipment and training rather than focusing on deploying Chinese antipiracy taskforces the way it did in Aden. A possible bellwether: in May–June 2014, Chinese warships completing Aden duties sailed to Cameroon, Nigeria and Namibia for bilateral exercises. Beijing has already provided Gulf of Guinea nations with substantial military assistance, training, bilateral/joint exercise, and ships. China has already held bilateral discussions with Russia concerning Gulf of Guinea security. Sr. Col. Zhou Bo, SHADE liaison for task forces 3–17 and now managing the PLA’s non-traditional security portfolio, sees ample room for Sino-American cooperation in this regard. [7]

China may be willing to increase its support to regional actors such as the African Union and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), although its direct role in terms of joint operations and local training remains lesser than many Western states. For instance, in early 2015 Nigeria received a former U.S. Coast Guard ship to address regional security challenges. Whatever its limitations in providing antipiracy ships and services, Beijing could presumably help lead the charge in offering crucial auxiliary support such as antipiracy training and, more broadly, overall investment and aid to the region.


In terms of “hard” naval benefits, PLAN antipiracy operations have sharpened sailors’ skills in operating their most advanced vessels and the equipment, systems and command structures needed for comprehensive naval modernization. Operational lessons learned further missions at home and abroad. On the “soft” side, antipiracy diplomacy is an important component of China’s overall military diplomatic rise, which also has included extensive Far Seas naval engagement to various Western countries and participation in U.S.-hosted RIMPAC exercises off Hawaii in recent years. Beyond supporting frequent diplomatic capital building activities, it has helped Beijing secure various access points for its navy on three continents.

As a rising naval power with high ambitions and external expectations, China will presumably look for additional ways to maintain a regular or semi-regular naval security presence in the Far Seas even after the conclusion of Somali antipiracy. The Gulf of Guinea and other insecure maritime areas offer potential platforms for doing so. While not on the same scale as Gulf of Aden antipiracy, these new frontiers are likely to offer fresh challenges and opportunities for China to safeguard its interests. How it addresses them will offer new windows into its growing hard and soft power.


  1. For detailed analysis, see Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, China in the Gulf of Aden: A Review, Jamestown Occasional Paper (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation, forthcoming 30 April 2015).
  2. Sr. Col. Zhou Bo, “Security of SLOCs and International Cooperation,” presentation at “ASEAN Regional Forum Seminar on SLOC Security,” Beijing, December 8, 2014.
  3. China’s antipiracy mission is not affiliated with any of the aforementioned “big three” multilateral efforts, but does coordinate with them as necessary.
  4. House Armed Services Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee Hearing on President Obama’s Fiscal 2016 Budget Request for Navy Seapower, February 25, 2015.
  5. Cdr. Gurpreet Khurana, Cdr. Kapil Narula and Asha Devi, “PLA Navy Submarine Visits Sir Lanka,” Making Waves, Vol. 19, No. 9.2 (New Delhi: National Maritime Foundation, September 30, 2014), 37.
  6. CDR Liu Xiaobo, legal advisor for Gulf of Aden antipiracy mission, “PLAN Escort Mission,” presentation at “ASEAN Regional Forum Seminar on SLOC Security,” Beijing, December 8, 2014.
  7. Sr. Col. Zhou Bo.