China has a long way to go as naval power

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 January, 2009, 12:00am

The stated aims of the Chinese navy's anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia are clear and limited. The mission began last week when the two destroyers and their supply ship arrived in the area to escort Chinese vessels that requested assistance, including those from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.

More than 1,000 Chinese merchant ships passed through the Gulf of Aden last year and seven were attacked by pirates from largely lawless Somalia. China has said it will also protect ships carrying humanitarian aid for UN agencies and respond to distress calls from other foreign vessels.

It has promised to exchange relevant information and co-ordinate where necessary with the several dozen warships from other navies patrolling in the region, among them the US, Britain, Russia, India, Iran and European countries. However, China's anti-piracy flotilla is intended to operate as a self-contained unit. It will not join the new US-led international naval force to combat piracy that was announced last week and is due to start operations by tomorrow.

Less clear are China's longer-term intentions in the Indian Ocean, even though this is the first long-range operation by the modern Chinese navy to protect the country's maritime trade and energy supply lines, by force if necessary. The two destroyers in the flotilla are among the most advanced in the Chinese fleet. So is the 23,000-tonne supply ship Weishanhu.

China denies it has ambitions to become a global military power, with a navy that maintains a regular presence in the Indian Ocean, as well as the Pacific and the South China Sea. But many analysts in the US, Asia and elsewhere think it is only a matter of time before Chinese warships routinely deploy to waters close to the Middle East and Africa, where over 75 per cent of China's vital oil imports come from.

If China does indeed have ambitions to become a major player in West Asian power politics, it will need a reliable infrastructure for projecting and sustaining naval and air power in the region. The US is the pre-eminent exponent of this strategy. It has a long head start over China. Its Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf, drawing ships on rotation from both the US Pacific and Atlantic fleets.

The US has a military base in Djibouti, which overlooks the Gulf of Aden and abuts Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. It has access to other ports in the region, among them Aden, in Yemen, in the southern section of the Arabian peninsula.

In Singapore, the US has negotiated access rights for its naval ships and military aircraft to use Singaporean base facilities.

A US logistics group, stationed in Singapore since 1992, plans the re-supply of food, munitions, fuel and spare parts for US navy ships in the Seventh Fleet area of operations, which includes the Pacific and Indian oceans. The logistics group plans and manages funding for US navy ship repairs in Singapore and other places in this vast region.

Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore