In what has been a retreat from their fairly rigid policy emphasizing the importance of sovereignty and non-intervention, China has conducted limited anti-piracy operations in and around the Gulf of Aden since 2008. With the recent announcement in the Liberation Army Daily that 84 leading naval commanders will undergo further specialized training in anti-piracy operations, China has cemented its commitment to combating piracy, while also tacitly signaling its intentions to further increase its maritime power. China is effectively killing two birds with one stone: satisfying its domestic/economic interests while also parading its new found military power to the international community. Operating under the guise of anti-piracy, China will not only secure its vital shipping lanes and interests in the region, but will showcase its ability to conduct and sustain naval operations far from their coastal waters in a relatively benign theater.
While Chinese efforts to combat piracy are generally seen as a favorable step towards Chinese integration into the world stage, not everyone is totally pleased with these developments. Since beginning their limited anti-piracy operations in 2008, the Chinese Navy has dramatically increased its competence in a variety of blue-water capacities, including sea logistics, replenishment, satellite communications, and command and control, according to US Naval analysts. Combined with strong littoral defense capabilities honed in its more traditional role protecting domestic coastlines, and an extensive naval upgrade that includes new destroyers, submarines, and a refurbished aircraft carrier purchased from Ukraine, the Chinese appear to be continuing their evolution into a maritime presence capable of complicating US Naval dominance in the immediate future.
The larger implications of this rise for US Naval planners remain to be seen though. China’s increasing ability to conduct operations in multiple theaters certainly complicates matters for strategists, and its capacity to restrict access at greater distances could prevent coordination of response, should an international event take place in the region. However, China has given no indication that it will challenge US Naval dominance in the regions the US deems strategically significant, and joint anti-piracy efforts remain one of the best opportunities to engage with Chinese military personnel in productive areas. Thus, while strategists must plan for a capable Chinese Navy in the future, current operations around the Horn of Africa may be the best opportunity to enhance cooperative understanding and achieve mutual goals.