The Relevant Organs: Institutional Factors behind China’s Gulf of Aden Deployment

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 20

Numerous institutional factors have driven and incentivized China’s participation in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Central to executing China’s first instance of protracted Far Seas naval operations has been inter-agency coordination among the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and other military and civil units and agencies. Beginning in 2008, Gulf of Aden operations have been designed and supported by an increasingly flat network of civil and military organs that collectively decide strategies, design and implement policies, and provide rear area support for the PLAN’s anti-piracy operations. This article will identify the main actors in this process, survey the gains achieved to date, and explain what these developments mean for broader Chinese military development.

The Institutional Genesis of Chinese Anti-Piracy

Given its flourishing ocean economy, China’s naval deployment to and sustained presence in the Gulf of Aden can be explained partially by economic incentives. Politically, Beijing felt compelled to avoid being seen as impotent compared to other large—and not so large—states. Finally, as viewed within China’s highest policy-making circles, deploying PLAN vessels implicitly allowed China to begin what many civil and military leaders viewed as the next phase in China’s twenty-first-century military modernization. In addition to these strong incentives, a perceived lack of cost-effective alternatives for addressing piracy on the Far Seas ultimately pushed Beijing to send PLAN forces to protect its interests.

One of the most thorough accounts available to date of the genesis and initial stages of the missions documents that it took nearly a year to decide finally to send PLAN forces through the Indian Ocean to the Horn of Africa (Huang Li, Sword Pointed at the Gulf of Aden, p. 174). One dimension of the internal debates over piracy related to the aspirations of China’s public and leadership to see their nation become a great power in the twenty-first century. The “China dream” articulated by General Secretary Xi Jinping in early December 2012 has resonated throughout the Chinese bureaucracy, reflecting official and public desires for national rejuvenation (Xinhua, December 2, 2012). As Daniel Hartnett recently wrote, one component of this revival is the “Dream of a Strong Military” (qiangjun meng) (See China Brief, Vol. 13, Issue 17). Indeed, in recent years China’s “perfect record” of anti-piracy patrols has been repeatedly celebrated in Chinese official statements, scholarship and media.

As early as May 2008 [*] associates at the Navy Military Studies Research Institute and the PLA National Defense University (NDU) began discussing escort feasibility. Representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), Ministry of Transportation (MoT), and the Headquarters of the General Staff of the PLA, as well as various experts, began convening in mid-October 2008. Captain Xing Guangmei, director of the World Naval Research Division, director of the Legal Research Office (falü yanjiushi), and a research fellow at the Navy Military Studies Research Institute (haijun xueshu yanjiusuo), played a significant role in deployment policy formulation. Beginning in October 2008 she and her team were presented with several policy questions: “What kind of military operations are military anti-piracy operations? [Is one] able to dispatch troops [to conduct anti-piracy operations]? What will military personnel do [once] deployed? If during the voyage [warships] do not [successfully] save ships victimized [by piracy], [then] what kinds of responsibilities will warship commanders bear? What to do if [Chinese forces] enter Somali territory?” [1]

China also faced the central issue of deploying forces independently rather than under the aegis of a preexisting multilateral mechanism. Given uneasiness on both sides regarding security concerns and familiarity, however, it was never likely that Beijing would integrate itself into one of the prevailing transnational mechanisms such as U.S.-led Combined Task Force (CTF)-151, NATO-commanded Operation Ocean Shield (OOS), or EU NAVFOR (Atalanta). The reality that unilateral involvement would be the only feasible option for the PLAN under prevailing circumstances may explain the surprisingly quick and effective coordination observed between China’s MoT, MoFA, and the PLAN, all of which cooperated with unusual speed in late 2008 to craft a framework for the PLAN’s anti-piracy deployment and thereby establish an operational foundation. A symposium held by these three entities, as well as the Ministry of Commerce, in early December, further formalized the policy process.

In November 2008 the Central Military Commission (CMC) overwhelmingly approved the proposal. [2] It is important to note that Beijing did not deploy military units in the Gulf of Aden until the United Nations Security Council adopted in 2008 three resolutions specifically authorizing the international community to intervene in Somali waters. Colonel Yang Yujun, deputy director of the Information Affairs Office and spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, cited the resolution’s authority in December 2012:  “Based on this resolution by the UN Security Council, escort vessel formations by the Chinese Navy will continue to fulfill escort tasks in the Gulf of Aden and the waters off of Somalia” (“Ministry of National Defense: The Chinese Military Will Provide Security Support for the Maritime Law Enforcement Activities of the State,” MoD website, December 27, 2012).  The continuation of the PLAN’s Gulf of Aden deployment still rests legally on Security Council resolutions authorizing states to combat piracy along the Somali coast. But Chinese officials, scholars and other experts have offered disparate opinions on the legal basis for China’s rules of engagement vis-à-vis pirate confrontations. Lawyers like Xing take a strict view in which pirate motives must be—according to international law—purely economic rather than political or ideological, for states to have a legal basis for combating them. There is even less consensus as to if and how China’s navy should detain and process captured pirate suspects on the Far Seas. As a result of considerable uncertainty over the robustness of domestic and international law, or what many scholars refer to gray areas, policies towards pirate confrontations are markedly conservative.

To be sure, PLAN rules of engagement do permit some action. Pirates often ignore initial verbal and visual warnings not to approach civilian vessels, thereby requiring PLAN personnel to fire flares and sometimes even warning shots. According to You Ji, “by the end of the first two years of the mission, the escort fleet had engaged pirates twenty-one times with live fire and thereby saved thirty commercial ships.” The deputy head of the ninth task force’s special operations unit reportedly “disclosed that his sailors were under a three-second firing-readiness order.” [3] A 2010 article in Modern Navy defended China’s restricted approach: “According to international laws and relevant laws and regulations, the Chinese navy’s operations are both practical and effective, as well as reasonable, measured, and backed by evidence; [while] driving away pirates, making ample preparations, [developing] scientific policy, [having] effective command, and moving quickly [allow the PLAN] to play an effective deterrent role” (Modern Navy, January 2010, 24-27).

“Behind the Curtain” Anti-Piracy Escort Institutions

Since the first deployed PLAN vessels—Wuhan, Haikou, and Weishanhu—left Sanya Port in Hainan Province for the Gulf of Aden in late December 2008, arrangements for successive PLAN escort task forces have become increasingly institutionalized and provide an unusual example of well-coordinated Chinese government action across ministries. From the outset, the PLAN’s Gulf of Aden missions have been managed jointly by the MoT, MoFA, and the PLAN (Liberation Army Daily, 4 July 2012). This sharing of responsibility among government organs requires considerable coordination. The MoT essentially plays the important role of coordinator, matching foreign commercial vessels with PLAN warships, otherwise unavailable to them (Sanlian Life Weekly, January 16, 2009). It solicits applications from foreign merchant vessels desiring PLAN escort services and proposes an escort to the task force. Once the PLAN has finalized its plan, the MoT guides the merchant ships to the point at which they are to meet the PLAN escorts. It also helps coordinate and plan port visits for refueling and replenishing in foreign countries, as well as official onboard exchanges between Chinese crewmen and their counterparts. During an insightful January 2009 interview, MoT official Ju Chengzhi emphasized the inter-agency nature of escort command, stating that the PLAN is in primary command of the escorts while the MoT coordinates and cooperates with the Navy. The command system used is an “information chain cycle” (xunhuan de xinxilian), essentially a flexible information-sharing apparatus that facilitates inter-agency coordination and rapid decision making, between the MoT and PLAN, PLAN and individual warships, warships and commercial ships, and commercial ships and the MoT (Sanlian Life Weekly, January 16, 2009). Meanwhile, MoFA, in addition to its assistance in planning, policy and public relations, almost certainly helps coordinate logistical components of the missions such as foreign port calls.

There is also evidence that the MoT plays also a role in stimulating anti-piracy cooperation between China and other states, as well as handling press releases. In August 2011 it cohosted with the Maritime and Port Authority of Singapore a conference entitled “Partnerships against Piracy off the Coast of Somalia.” Several Chinese and foreign media outlets have cited announcements by MoT spokespeople of the departures and return journeys of escort task forces (DefenceWeb, July 5, 2011). MoT officials are typically present during videoconferences between escort task forces and military leaders in China, such as a when in January 2011 Wu Shengli and other naval officials thanked the PLAN escort forces in the Gulf of Aden for their service (People’s Navy, February 1, 2011).

Operationally, Chinese anti-piracy operations require considerable synchronization among military and civil agencies. To mitigate inefficiencies stemming from vertical, asymmetrical information flows between various government and military agencies, China’s navy adopted for this effort a flat command structure in which CMC orders can be passed directly to vessels on duty rather than through fleet and base command levels. This expedites decision making in times of urgency. For example, in June 2012, while serving on the eleventh escort task force, Yantai experienced a radar system malfunction. According to an article in China’s Science & Technology Daily, “the radar’s automatic plotting device suddenly “went on strike” one day. People in the ship formation checked repeatedly but could not find the cause of the breakdown. So they activated the “ship’s equipment remote maintenance and repair technical support” group consultation system. Very quickly, people aboard Yantai “invited on board” technical experts at an electronic science and technology organization in Shanghai, and the problem was easily solved (Science & Technology Daily, June 5, 2012).

Similarly, this coordination mechanism reportedly allowed the crewmen serving on an escort taskforce deployed by the North Sea Fleet (NSF), rarely exposed to Far Seas anti-piracy operations at the time, to gain troubleshooting access to over four hundred naval and technical experts in Shanghai, reflecting PLAN efforts to ensure that its relatively inexperienced units are able to operate smoothly in the Gulf of Aden (Liberation Army Daily, May 25, 2012). One exercise drill held by the tenth task force in February 2012 suggests that the PLAN has recognized the need to regularize emergency repair. During the exercise,a repair team boarded a ship whose radar had “failed” after a pirate attack and “repaired” it in twenty minutes while medical personnel treated “injured” crewmembers (CCTV-7 Military Report, February 20, 2012).

More generally, experience in coordination gained in Gulf of Aden operations has set a standard for future instances in which Beijing needs to respond swiftly in the Far Seas or other regions outside of China. Given the PLAN’s enhanced role in safeguarding national interests, Chinese authors Yang Jun, Zou Debin, and Xu Yanshan argue, China must abandon the tendency to view naval development independently but should rather “include maritime material flow into the building system-of-systems of the whole military, into the maritime material flow system-of-systems of the whole nation; and . . . build according to the support thinking of ‘joint logistics in charge of general support, navy in charge of in charge of special support’ under the overall planning of the nation and the General Headquarters.” [4]

These are but a few small, documented examples of a wide range of institutional achievements by China’s navy and its civil and military support network that has supported anti-piracy missions for five uninterrupted years. Collectively, institutional breakthroughs for China’s navy in the Far Seas, their modest nature notwithstanding, allow the PLAN to set in place flat communication and coordination structures for future missions regardless of geographic distance from China. In particular, the institutional lessons learned in the Gulf of Aden, such as how to design coordination structures to optimize rapid response time and respond to unpredictable contingencies, are likely applicable to a host of preparation, training, and real-time operations in China’s Near Seas.


  1. Xing’s experience was documented in a 2009 Southern Weekend article. See Shen Liang and Wei Di, “Bingma wei dong junfa xianxing—Zhongguo jundui ye xu falu ‘yanhu’” [Policy Procedures Precede Military Action (lit. “Military Law Precedes Movement of Troops and Horses”): The Chinese Military Also Needs the “Cover” of Law], Southern Weekend, 2 April 2009.
  2. See You Ji, “PLA Navy’s Gulf of Aden Mission as Capability Building against NTS Threats,” p. 33.
  3. Ibid., p. 34.
  4. See Yang Jun et al., “Research on Maritime Military Material Flow System-of-Systems Building,” in Junshi wuliu yu junshi jiaotong yunshu  [Military Material Flow and Military Communications and Transportation], pp. 80–83.

* Due to an editing error, and early version of this article read “As early as May 2012.” 2008 is correct