China’s Gulf of Aden Expedition and Maritime Cooperation in East Asia

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 1

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has deployed two warships and a supply ship to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the coast of Somalia on an "anti-piracy mission." To many observers of Chinese foreign policy, this decision appears to break from Beijing’s consistent position of maintaining a low profile international policy and marks a departure from its strenuous effort to downplay—and to a large extent conceal—the growth of its military power in the past decade. One may wonder whether the naval expedition to Africa represents a watershed in China’s security policy. Another question is how the Gulf of Aden operation will change China’s policy and behavior in maritime affairs in East Asia. The regional order in East Asia is predominantly shaped by the policies and strategies of various actors in maritime affairs in the region, namely the United States, and China will want to feature itself prominently in the evolution of the region’s maritime regime.

China’s participation in maritime cooperation in East Asia has been fairly active and pragmatic. On the one hand, Beijing has actively participated in various concrete programs concerning maritime affairs. On the other hand, China has unequivocally rejected any grand scheme or proposal regarding maritime cooperation in the region. In light of these observations, it is perhaps reasonable to conclude that the Gulf of Aden mission is likely to foster more Chinese activism in maritime non-traditional security cooperation in East Asia but China is not prepared to strive for any notable leadership role or join any grand scheme in this regard.

A Mixture of Confidence and Caution

Overall, China’s handling of the Gulf of Aden mission has been quite sophisticated and skillful. This is reflective of growing Chinese confidence that stems from a multiplicity of sources, including more or less stable relations with other major powers (in particular the United States and Japan), and strengthened naval capability. Furthermore, China’s decision to embark on the mission signals the policy-makers’ growing awareness of the necessity of using military means for the protection of Chinese commercial interests on the seas. The practical consideration of taking advantage of the opportunity to gain naval battle experience also played a big role in the decision.

Political and military confidence notwithstanding, it is also notable that China acted with considerable caution before the official decision was made public, which reflects China’s concern that such naval action might be interpreted by other powers, especially regional states, as a harbinger of Chinese assertiveness. The caution is demonstrated in China’s probe for international responses before the official announcement of the decision and the high-profile public relations campaigns that accompanied it. The Chinese strategic community first made the proposal in the Chinese media to test how other parties would respond. Then Chinese diplomats to the United Nations followed up with a statement that China was considering the possibility of using its naval force to strike down piracy in the Gulf of Aden. Having sensed a relatively calm reaction from other states and even encouraging signals from the United States, Beijing officially made the announcement and followed up with high-profile public relations campaigns. Spokesmen at the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry and prominent Chinese analysts strenuously attempted to justify China’s decision on the ground of international law (the UN Security Council resolutions in particular), China being victims of the Somalian pirates, China’s commercial interests, international maritime security, and the operations of other countries. A notable point that China constantly emphasized was that the naval action signifies China’s intention and behavior to be a responsible power. All these aimed at forestalling any negative international opinion on China’s naval expedition to the region.

China’s Growing Activism in Maritime Affairs in East Asia

Many maritime affairs concern a nation-state’s sovereign claims in territory and resources and the role of its military or quasi-military in dealing with these issues.

In the past decade or so, the PLA has made notable progress in engaging the militaries of many other countries. This growing military openness and international communications, especially between the PLA Navy and the naval forces of other countries, have had a positive impact on China’s maritime cooperation.

China has made notable progress in participating in joint search and rescue exercises on the seas with a wide range of countries in recent years. China and India held their first naval joint search and rescue operation in 2003 in the East China Sea. The military exchanges between the two powers have been gradually increasing ever since, leading to the second joint search and rescue exercise in the Indian Ocean in December 2005 (Liaowang Xinwen Zhoukan [Outlook News Weekly], May 10, 2004). In July 2005, China, South Korea, and Japan held a joint search and rescue exercise in China’s offshore area. In September and November 2006, Chinese and American navies conducted two search and rescue exercise in the U.S. West coast and in the South China Sea respectively [1].  This was the result of 8 years of maritime security consultations between the two countries and a major breakthrough in the past 20 years (Outlook News Weekly, November 27, 2006). China participated in the first ARF maritime-security shore exercise hosted by Singapore in January 2007. In March 2007, two Chinese missile frigates, together with the naval forces from Bangladesh, France, Italy, Malaysia, Pakistan, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States participated in the four-day sea phase of “Peace-07” exercises in the Arabian Sea. In May 2007, a PLAN missile frigate took part in the Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) exercise that also involves Australia and the United States. Although China joined this forum over twenty years ago as one of its founding members, this was the first time it was involved in a live exercise [2]. Joint search and rescue operations were also conducted with Australia and New Zealand in October 2007.

These joint search and rescue operations offered experience to the PLAN, and gradually changed the Chinese military decision makers’ mindset leading to the political and military confidence shown in the decision of the Gulf of Aden mission. Moreover, the naval exchanges with external powers and regional states have been quite significant in facilitating China’s participation in various programs of maritime cooperation in East Asia.

China is no longer an outsider in East Asian maritime cooperation, particularly in some of the concrete projects, such as joint oceanic research, environmental protection, and many sea-based non-traditional security issues. In Northeast Asia, China helped North Korea train personnel and provided various equipments to the North Korean Navy. The two countries also engaged in a few research projects in the Yellow Sea (Zhongguo Haiyang Bao [China Ocean Newspaper], December 12, 2006). China and South Korea signed a MOU on joint oceanic research in 1994 and set up a joint research centre on marine science the next year. The two sides have been collaborating quite closely on a wide range of issues ever since (e.g. management of offshore areas, marine environmental protection and information exchange). China and Japan, in the past years, also cooperated in studies of oceanic currents. Japan provided equipment and trained Chinese personnel (China Ocean Newspaper, December 12, 2006). At the trilateral level among China, Japan, and South Korea, starting from 1999, the three countries launched a ministerial level meeting on environment and various concrete proposals on sandstorms and marine environmental protection have been carried out. In 2004, the authorities monitoring earthquake in the three countries agreed to share seismic information and technology. The immigration authorities of the three countries have also held workshops on countering terrorism, drug trafficking, and human trafficking in Northeast Asia.

In Southeast Asia, China has agreed to various legal frameworks that would facilitate closer maritime cooperation with its neighboring states in the region, either bilaterally or multilaterally. These documents include the 2000 China-ASEAN action plan on countering drug trafficking, the 2002 China-ASEAN joint declaration on cooperation in non-traditional security issues, and the 2004 China-ASEAN MOU on non-traditional security cooperation. Bilaterally, China has attempted to strengthen maritime cooperation with Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. With Vietnam, discussion and cooperation were conducted through the joint marine experts group. Major areas of cooperation included forecast of waves in the South China Sea, offshore environmental protection, exchange of information, and coastal area management capacity building. China and Thailand are negotiating a formal agreement to further institutionalize and deepen their cooperation in maritime affairs (China Ocean Newspaper, October 7, 2008). During a visit to Southeast Asia by the former director of China’s State Oceanic Administration Wang Shuguang in 2004, China reached agreements with Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia on cooperation in a variety of maritime issues (e.g. marine environmental protection, oceanic resources management, and oceanic science and surveys). Various concrete projects have been or are being carried out. During Wang’s visit, he even proposed that maritime ministers of countries surrounding the South China Sea meet regularly (China Ocean Newspaper, December 24, 2004). China claims that it intends to further engage ASEAN countries in disaster reduction and relief, seminars on oceanic studies, and eco-monitoring training programs in the South China Sea area (China Ocean Newspaper, December 12, 2006).
At the broader international level, China has been participating in the UNEP’s Global Meeting of Regional Seas, the Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities, the East Asian Seas Action Plan, and the Northwest Pacific Action Plan. In the Northwest Pacific Action Plan, for instance, in December 2007, China joined the relief work of an oil spilling incident off the coast of South Korea under the emergency response mechanism of the plan and, in September 2008, China and South Korea held a joint emergency exercise in dealing with search and rescue and oil spilling in the sea (Zhongguo Shui Yun Bao [China Water Transport Newspaper], September 3, 2008). China joined the North Pacific Coast Guard Forum (NPCGF) in 2004, four years after its inception. The forum attempts to provide a platform for international coast guard leaders to interact regularly and also initiated at-sea combined exercises that began in 2005. China now actively participates in its six areas of cooperation: anti-drug trafficking, joint actions, counter-illegal immigration, maritime security, information exchange, and law enforcement on the sea. In 2006, China even hosted the seventh experts’ meeting of the NPCGF (Renmin Gong’an Bao [People’s Public Security Newspaper], March 31, 2006). China’s participation in the NPCGF is particularly significant since it provides a valuable forum for China and the US to communicate and exchange views on various maritime issues [3]. Two Chinese ports, Shanghai and Shenzhen, are now officially part of the U.S. Container Security Initiative (CSI) (Xinhua News Agency, June 24, 2005).

All these new policy moves and behaviors reflect a slightly changed mindset among Chinese decision makers. Some Chinese analysts believe that cooperation with other militaries, including the U.S. military, on various non-traditional security issues is an inevitable trend as China further integrates itself into the international society. Military exchanges with other countries are also important as the Chinese military may have to be more frequently involved in protecting China’s overseas interests and evacuating Chinese nationals in emergent foreign conflict areas. Exchanges with foreign militaries, especially the U.S. military now would lay a good foundation for cooperation and avoidance of misunderstanding when such cases arise (Outlook News Weekly, November 27, 2006).

China’s Concerns for Grand Schemes

The growing activism in the past decade or so noted above was largely a reflection of the significant improvement in China’s international relations in the region. Despite active participation in maritime cooperation in recent years, China’s role in this regard is likely to be restrained by the military and strategic environment in East Asia, China’s own concerns of sovereign territorial claims, Chinese posture on military transparency, and of course the policies of other states in maritime affairs.

The strategic reality in East Asia is still that the U.S. serves as the hegemonic stabilizer. Many East Asian states look to the U.S. for security purposes and attempt to maintain American participation in regional military and maritime affairs. It is still difficult to imagine East Asia developing institutionalized maritime cooperation without U.S. participation. In this sense, China’s role and participation in East Asian maritime cooperation will have to be influenced by the U.S. factor and Sino-U.S. military relations. To a lesser extent, the lack of strategic trust among major powers in the East Asian Seas region is also a restraining factor for China’s more active participation in maritime cooperation. This is so because many projects in maritime cooperation will have to depend on the naval forces directly or indirectly.

The lack of strategic trust affecting China’s attitude in maritime cooperation is evident in China’s view of the U.S. Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI). China supports the objectives of the PSI, but argues that the PSI includes the possibility of taking interdiction measures on the sea beyond the permission of existing international laws. That is why China decided not to participate in the PSI. In addition, China urges participating countries to seriously consider the Chinese point and act with caution in the implementation of the PSI (Xinhua News Agency, September 1, 2008). Chinese analysts believe that the PSI, initiated and dominated by the US, is a fairly aggressive and coercive collective mechanism, a by-product of Bush’s “preemptive strategy,” and deeply embedded in American unilateralism [4].

Another case is China’s response to the U.S. proposal for a Global Maritime Partnership (GMP or Thousand-Ship Navy). Washington hopes that China can join this grand scheme to deal with all sorts of maritime problems at the global level [5]. The U.S. has twice requested China to participate in the plan and did so again after China made public its decision to dispatch its fleet to the African waters. Chinese military analysts, however, still have profound skepticism of the U.S. proposal. Many of them believe that the plan actually indicates US intention to set up a global naval regime to continue to dominate maritime affairs at the global level [6]. Others even fear that it is part of U.S. strategy to strategically constrain China and Russia [7].

Future Prospect for China’s Role in East Asian Maritime Cooperation

Overall, China’s maritime policy has been in a state of dynamic transition. Its policy shifted from distrust and non-participation in regional maritime programs throughout much of the 1990s, to active participation and growing integration over the past few years. Now the Gulf of Aden operation has demonstrated Chinese capability and confidence. With the milestone decision of the African expedition and China’s first large medical ship in service, it is quite likely that China may seek to play a more important role in maritime non-traditional security issues, for instance disaster relief, anti-piracy in the South China Sea, and the safety of sea lines of communication in East Asia.

There are quite a number of propitious conditions for China’s growing role in maritime affairs in the region. First of all, China has already been fully participating in all sorts of maritime programs in East Asia seas, has gained the necessary experience in dealing with various maritime challenges, and is better informed of the policies and expectations of other states. Second, in the mainstream strategic thinking in China, proactive engagement with regional states is still viewed as a proper strategy for consolidating China’s strategic foothold in the region and shaping regional international relations conducive to China’s domestic economic programs. Third, the overall maritime order in East Asia is stable and other regional states seem to respond positively to China’s engagement policy. This is best illustrated in the cases of China-Japan in-principle agreement (reached in June 2008) on the joint oil and gas exploration and extraction in the East China Sea and the China-Vietnam joint statement (announced on October 25, 2008) regarding their willingness to jointly explore parts of the South China Sea. However, such joint development projects are notoriously fickle, as demonstrated by the recent spat between China and Japan over China’s exploration of the Tianwaitian gas field (China Daily, January 5). Still, the overall positive atmosphere provides some hope that China and its maritime neighbors may eventually manage to find some mutually acceptable solutions to their disputes.

In East Asia, China still has territorial disputes with many of its maritime neighbors and, in addition to scrutiny by external powers, other Asian states keep a close watch over China’s activities in regional maritime affairs. The Gulf of Aden, on the other hand, is a much less sensitive region for China and thus serves as a perfect testing ground for the Chinese Navy.  It is still premature to expect China to strive for any leadership role in maritime affairs closer to home.


1. Luo Yuan, “Zhong mei junshi guanxi feng xiang he fang” [Where is the Sino-US Military Relationship Headed], Heping yu Fazhan [Peace and Development], issue 2, 2008, pp. 9-14.
2. Eric McVadon, “China and the United States on the High Seas,” China Security, Vol. 3 No. 4 Autumn 2007, pp. 3 – 28.
3. Eric McVadon, op. cit.
4. Gu Guoliang, “Meiguo ‘fang kuosan anquan changyi’ pingxi” [An analysis of American “Proliferation Security Initiative”], Meiguo Yanjiu [American Studies], no. 3, 2004, pp. 30-44.
5. Eric McVadon, op. cit.
6. Du Chaoping, “Meiguo ‘qian jian haijun” jihua yu zhongguo de xuanze,” [U.S. “Thousand-Ship Navy” Plan and Chinese Choices], Jian Zai Wuqi [Shipborne Weapons], December 2007, pp. 23-28.
7. Media interview with Li Jie, a PLAN analyst, available at, accessed November 4, 2008.