Priorities and Challenges in China’s Naval Deployment in the Horn of Africa

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 24

Chinese fishing vessel Tianyu No. 8

For a few days in mid-November, it looked like the Chinese government was prepared to take the unprecedented step to lead a multinational security operation involving the armed forces of Russia, the United States, the EU, and other countries. Following the seizure of yet another Chinese commercial vessel by Somali-based pirates, Beijing convened a two-day conference to enhance international coordination of the many foreign fleets currently seeking to defend shipping around Somalia from pirate attack. Participants included senior navy officers from EU and NATO countries along with representatives from India, Japan, Russia, and other navies whose warships have joined the maritime patrols around the Horn of Africa (BBC, November 6).

According to some media reports, at a subsequent meeting of the Shared Awareness and De-confliction (SHADE) group, which includes representatives of the some three dozen navies currently participating in the maritime counter-piracy mission, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) delegates expressed a willingness to integrate their operations more closely with the other navies on the mission (Fox News, November 10). In addition, they reportedly told officials from the European Union Naval Force for Somalia (EU Navfor) that they wished to assume more of a leadership role in the multilateral maritime patrols. In particular, the PLAN members suggested they favored rotating the SHADE co-chairmanship among the other participating navies so that China could serve in that role. Thus far, these monthly meetings have been co-chaired by the EU Navfor and the multinational Combined Maritime Force led by the United States (Telegraph, November 10).

Both of the existing co-chairs supported the proposal. At an international anti-piracy conference in Hong Kong that convened a few days later, Commodore Tim Lowe, the deputy commander of the Combined Maritime Forces, said that the chairmanship position was “a leadership role in terms of making sure that the meetings and the agendas for the meetings are properly coordinated.” Lowe added that he hoped “that perhaps in April or May next year, we would see China taking on that lead coordinator role for the corridor” that the international fleets established for protecting the commercial vessels (Reuters, November 13).

A few days later, however, the Chinese government reverted to their previous stance of simply calling for greater international cooperation against the pirates. Rather than leading or even joining a combined multilateral force, Chinese representatives called for a division of the sea lanes currently being patrolled into separate national sectors. Writing in China Daily, Zhang Haizhou observed that Chinese “officials deftly parried appeals for China to lead the anti-piracy mission” that were made by Lowe (China Daily, November 20).

For example, senior Colonel Huang Xueping, a Defense Ministry spokesman, said that, “China is always open to boosting international patrolling cooperation (and) wishes to cooperate, bilaterally and multilaterally, with all nations involved” in the counter-piracy operation off Somalia. But he added that Beijing wanted to “reach consensus” on an arrangement for defining specific national patrol areas (China Daily, November 20). Liu Zhenmin, deputy permanent representative of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to the UN, likewise proposed to the UN Security Council that the navies engaged in the counter-piracy mission “define areas of responsibility.” He argued that such an approach would improve escort operations and reduce the risks of pirates hijacking vessels. Liu also called for an “integrated solution” to overcome the piracy problem, which would include promoting political stability in Somalia and enhancing the ability of the country’s neighbors to counter regional piracy. He further urged that the navies now supporting the counter-piracy mission off Somalia “should expand maritime escort operations and other countries should also improve how they carry out maritime escort operations” (Xinhua News Agency, November 18).

Rear Admiral Yin Zhuo maintained that allocating specific areas for each patrolling country would “significantly increase” the efficiency of the operation. He observed that, “When each country takes care of a specific area, density of the patrolling mission will grow,” though he added that the navies involved had to have effective means of coordinating their activities (China Daily, November 20). When discussing appropriate coordinating mechanisms, Beijing’s reluctance to engage in close military cooperation with NATO was again evident, a factor also seen in China’s cautious policies toward the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. The Chinese press quoted Admiral Yin as arguing that the United Nations “is the best candidate to take the leading coordinating role” in countering the pirates because China lacks formal relations with NATO (China Daily, November 20).

PLAN Procedures

The growing threat to international shipping in the Gulf of Aden and neighboring regions from pirates operating from ports in lawless Somalia has engendered an unparalleled global response. The UN, NATO, the EU, and various national governments have organized separate multilateral and single-country maritime security operations in the Horn of Africa region to patrol sea lanes, escort merchant vessels, and respond to distress calls and pirate sightings. Since the PLAN first sent three warships to conduct counter-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden this January, the Chinese Navy has focused on protecting Chinese-flagged vessels and Chinese sailors. Thus far, PLA representatives have resisted EU and NATO proposals to join a more centrally commanded operation (BBC, November 6).

The PLAN has traditionally concentrated on defending Chinese coastal waters and on impeding U.S. military intervention in any Taiwan contingency. Although Chinese warships have engaged in port visits and unsophisticated exercises with foreign navies, the current operation represents the first potential combat mission for the PLAN outside the Pacific. The Chinese Navy has now sent four task forces, consisting of two or three warships, typically frigates, along with a larger supply ship and hundreds of sailors and special force troops, since the beginning of the year (Xinhua News Agency, October 30). In November 2009, Liang Wei, the deputy chief of operations for the PLAN’s South Fleet, said that the four Chinese flotillas had escorted or protected approximately 1,100 commercial vessels from potential pirate attack (Reuters, November 13).

Yet, none of the Chinese warships on patrol thus far appear to have engaged in large-scale combat with the pirates, raising the interesting question of what rules of engagement the Chinese flotilla follows. At a November 2009 maritime seminar in Hong Kong, Liang Wei, deputy chief of operations for the South Sea fleet, said the standard operating procedures were for the PLAN first to investigate any incident “to make sure it is not a fisherman but a pirate.” The Chinese sailors would fire warning shots if the pirates initiated the use of force. If this show of force failed to stop the pirate attack, then the Chinese ships would fire in self-defense of themselves or in defense of others (South China Morning Post, November 14). Yet the same source cites another unnamed Chinese military official who acknowledged that the PLAN weighed additional criteria when determining its response to a pirate attack. “For us to use force is a very complex matter … it is not just a simple question based on an operational requirement.” Rather, the decision over how to respond also involved “political questions—and these are not issues dealt with by military commanders alone. Our warships off Somalia are very well aware of this. We are fully prepared to use force, but we do not take that step lightly” (South China Morning Post, November 14).

Threats and Opportunities

Despite the large international counter-piracy operation, the Somali piracy threat has worsened this year after showing some signs of improving in 2008 after foreign navies established a five-mile wide protection corridor that ranged up to 300 nautical miles off Somali’s coast. As of mid-October 2009, the pirates had conducted almost 150 attacks on commercial vessels in the waters off the Horn of Africa since the beginning of the year. They succeeded in hijacking more than 40 ships and at least 270 hostages (RIA Novosti, October 21). Many of the recent attacks have occurred at great distances from Somalia’s shores—including some in the Indian Ocean and even the Gulf of Oman—as the pirates have sought to prey on vessels outside the protection corridor (United Press International, November 19).

Chinese ships have suffered several prominent attacks. On October 19, the pirates seized a vessel owned by China Cosco Holding, the De Xin Hai, and its 25 crew members while they were conveying 76,000 metric tons of coal over 700 nautical miles from Somalia’s coast (New York Times, October 22). Following the incident, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said China would “make all-out efforts to rescue the hijacked ship and personnel,” but no such operation occurred (Time, October 27). Instead, the PRC Ministry of Transport subsequently issued a warning that “Chinese ships must urgently steer as far away from the area as possible. Ships within the region must exercise caution and increase their vigilance” (RIA Novosti, October 21). In November, the pirates launched their most distant attack to date on a Hong Kong-flagged oil tanker sailing 1,000 nautical miles from Mogadishu.

This upsurge in maritime assaults may account for Beijing’s recent efforts to strengthen the international response to the piracy challenge. In addition to hosting last month’s international counter-piracy summit in Beijing, the PLAN in September conducted a three-day joint exercise with the Russian Navy in the Gulf of Aden that rehearsed capturing and detaining pirates. The Chinese warships that participated in these simulated search-and-detain operations included the Zhoushan and the Xuzhou along with support vessels (RIA Novosti, September 21).

Several considerations led the PRC leadership to make the unprecedented decision to deploy the PLAN on a counter-piracy mission around the Horn of Africa. China possesses one of the world’s largest commercial shipping fleets and relies heavily on international maritime commerce, including for energy imports from the Persian Gulf which are carried on tankers that traverse regions potentially threatened from long-range pirates operating from Somalia [1]. Chinese policy makers and security experts have cited this dependence on foreign energy imports as a Chinese security vulnerability [2]. The PRC’s counter-piracy efforts near Somalia enjoy the legitimacy of several UN Security Council resolutions calling on UN member states to curb piracy in the region. The counter-piracy operation also has the support of Somalia’s transitional government. In addition, many other foreign navies are engaged in the same mission. The Somali campaign marks the first widespread participation of the world’s rising naval powers—which besides China includes India and other non-NATO navies—in an active maritime operation distant from their shores [3]. On January 14, 2009, a Chinese delegation attended the founding meeting of the Contact Group on Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia, giving Beijing a leading role in this institution from the start (unlike in the case of such institutions as the Proliferation Security Initiative, which the PRC has resisted joining partly because China would have to accept a set of principles Beijing had no say in establishing). The Contact Group provides a mechanism to allow states and international organizations to exchange information on aspects of combating piracy off Somalia’s coast [4].

In addition to whatever protection of China’s shipping that results from the PLAN’s participation in the counter-piracy operation around Somalia, the Chinese Navy and the PRC have benefited in other ways from supporting the mission. The Chinese sailors involved have had ample opportunities to improve their tactics, techniques, and procedures by working in close proximity with several more experienced navies. Rear Admiral Du Jingchen, commander of the first PLAN task force, earlier told the Chinese media while returning to his home port of Sanya that he used the 123-day patrol to test his sailors’ capabilities, weapons, and support mechanisms as well as promote maritime defense diplomacy (China Daily, April 29). “The first anti-piracy fleet had zero experience,” he explained, but it had learned valuable lessons applicable for future overseas PLAN missions. A week earlier, Zhuang Congyong, a researcher with the Naval Command Academy, likewise observed that, “The ability to go deep into the ocean to conduct integrated operations is a key criterion for a strong navy. The escort operation to the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters reflects and starts the transformation of our military strategy,” Zhuang said, adding that, “The Chinese navy will conduct more long-distance escort missions in the future” (Xinhua News Agency, April 22). By engaging in such a high-profile operation, moreover, the PLAN can highlight its contribution to advancing China’s foreign interests to PRC policy makers, including those determining the Navy’s budget.

The Chinese government in turn has characterized it’s support for the counter-piracy operation as meeting Beijing’s commitments as a benign international security actor (what some non-Chinese analyst have termed a responsible global stakeholder). It also confirms China’s growing capacity and willingness to contribute to international humanitarian missions. The day after the PRC celebrated the 60th anniversary of the PLAN in April 2009, an editorial in the People’s Daily Online lauded the Somalia operation on the grounds that, “The protection offered by the PLA fleet safeguards the national interests of China and projects a favorable image of China to the world.” The commentary added that, “This mission indicates that as a responsible power of the international community, China is fulfilling its promise to advance the construction of a harmonious world, and is taking actions to uphold world peace and boost mutual development. At the same time, it is demonstrating to the world that China, currently in the course of peaceful development, is utilizing its own military power to provide ‘public goods’ to the international community” (People’s Daily Online, April 24).

Yet, assuming a leadership position in the international counter-piracy coalition in the form of the SHADE co-chairmanship appears to have been a step too far for Beijing’s still cautious government, despite the encouragement offered the PRC by European and U.S. Navy commanders. In this regard, China’s wavering over leading the maritime mission off Somalia is symptomatic of how Beijing has approached many other international security issues. Chinese policy makers stress their desire to support world peace and security, but they still shun leadership roles in prominent international institutions and endeavors seeking this end. In Central Asia, for instance, Chinese officials continue to defer to Moscow’s primacy when it comes to many political and military questions, including those addressed in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The PRC’s most prominent security role has been with respect to the Korean Peninsula, where Beijing has played a key part in establishing and sustaining the Six-Party Talks. But even here the Chinese government has performed the role primarily of facilitator and mediator rather than that of leader. Instead of defining the terms of a preferred solution and seeking to impose it on the other parties, Beijing has sought to encourage Pyongyang and Washington to reconcile their differences through direct dialogue and use the multilateral framework of the talks to reach a comprehensive agreement that would also satisfy Seoul and Tokyo, who in turn are expected to provide financial support for any deal.


1. Andrew S. Erickson, “New U.S. Maritime Strategy: Initial Chinese Responses,” China Security, vol. 3, no. 4, Autumn 2007, p. 40.
2. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Annual Report 2009 (Washington, D.C.), p. 133,
3. Brian Wilson and James Kraska, “Anti-Piracy Patrols Presage Rising Naval Powers,” YaleGlobal, 13 January 2009,
4. "First Plenary Meeting of the Contact Group on Piracy Off the Coast of Somalia, New York, January 14, 2009," Fact Sheet, U.S. Department of State, January 20, 2009,