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Erickson and Strange: China’s Far Seas “Five-Year Plan”

by Guest Blogger for Elizabeth C. Economy
November 15, 2013

Sailors from the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill board the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) frigate Yi Yang to meet prior to conducting a bilateral counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden on September 17, 2012. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Aaron Chase/Courtesy Reuters). Sailors from the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill board the Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) frigate Yi Yang to meet prior to conducting a bilateral counter-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden on September 17, 2012. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Aaron Chase/Courtesy Reuters).

This guest post is by Andrew Erickson, an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College, and Austin Strange, a researcher for the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. 

Given its historical significance and implications for domestic and global markets, the Chinese Communist Party’s recently concluded third plenum of the Eighteenth Central Committee has unsurprisingly shifted the focus of domestic and foreign audiences to China’s economy. Three hundred seventy-six top Party members met for four days and produced a report of approximately 5,000 words that, among various broad objectives, stipulates giving the market economy a “decisive role” in the country’s allocation of resources.

Of course, as China enters its thirty-fifth year of “opening up” economic reforms, reforms to its foreign policies need to follow economic development if China is to peacefully grow into international society. Interestingly, the commencement of likely difficult but urgently needed economic reforms coincides with the completion of another reform project, over 7,000 miles away from Beijing.

The imminent five-year anniversary of Chinese anti-piracy operations is a milestone made possible by economic development. Moreover, as our recently-published study details, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) have been a vanguard of operational reform, which in turn has altered China’s presence and foreign policy trajectory in the maritime commons.

Despite its near disappearance off Somalia in 2012 following protracted multinational naval deployments, modern piracy remains and will remain a significant non-traditional security threat for all maritime states. The release last week of two Americans onboard oil vessel C Retriever kidnapped by Nigerian pirates in the Gulf of Guinea reflects the upward trends of pirate attacks in poorly governed maritime regions.

China’s reliance on the world’s most pirate-infested sea lines of communication (SLOC) will only increase in the coming decades as Chinese economic reforms unfold and demand for external oil and gas supplies rises. Keenly aware of this, the PLAN has, since 2008, made substantial contributions to the safety of the Gulf of Aden and neighboring economic lifelines through escorts, area patrols, and on-ship protection. Repeated encounters with pirates and dozens of exchanges with other navies have allowed the PLAN to exhibit its competence in deterring piracy. They have also helped to identify areas for logistical and operational improvement for future missions and, potentially, actual combat. In particular, anti-piracy operations have sharpened the Far Seas operational capacity of Chinese PLAN crewmen, Special Forces soldiers, naval aviators, and various surface platforms deployed off Somalia. Put simply, through persistent, incremental reforms, China has “sharpened its Far Seas sword.”

Not surprisingly, Chinese international maritime exchanges have increased during this five-year learning window. Indeed, Far Seas globetrotting has recently become routine for several of China’s frigates and destroyers. Recently a three-ship task force from the PLAN’s North Sea Fleet (NSF) completed a 105-day trans-Pacific deployment to the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

For a newly rising naval power this is no small feat. It puts serious stress on naval platforms and the sailors aboard them. Yet China’s five years of anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden have ensured that all 10,000-plus crewmen deployed off Somalia have, in the words of the Global Times, “evolved from maritime rookies to confident sea dogs.”

As China’s Gulf of Aden deployment demonstrates, necessity is an effective motivator. A variety of internal and external economic, social, political and strategic incentives first compelled Beijing to deploy anti-piracy forces. And despite concerns of Chinese decision-makers that the missions were becoming too costly, the PLAN is approaching five years of uninterrupted operations marked by constant learning, growing efficiency, and positive international cooperation. The Gulf of Aden is a landmark for China’s twenty-first-century foreign policy. Let’s hope that necessity will inspire China’s economic strategists to make—and implement—equally bold decisions.

The views expressed here are those of the authors alone. Additional details are available in their recently-published monograph: No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden, Naval War College CMSI China Maritime Study 10 (November 2013).

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