Expanding navy role good for China and world
China's rise means many things to many people. In some cases, business interests and practices overseas have soured ties; in others, a lack of transparency has engendered suspicions. But Beijing's actions in helping combat piracy in the waters off the lawless African nation of Somalia is a textbook example of the country taking its place as a responsible, useful and willing global player.
The offer to lead UN food aid escorts to Somalia demonstrates that desire, perhaps more than any previous gesture. Such a proposal can't have, after all, been put forward lightly. If accepted by the European Union, whose navy is presently struggling to get shipments through, naval commitments and dangers on a scale not before dealt with so far from home would be encountered by China. Increasing millions of Somalis are starving, making the safe delivery of World Food Programme support essential. Military engagement would be an ever-present possibility: the People's Liberation Army Navy would never before have come so close to the pirates' lairs, while Islamists opposed to foreign engagement are getting increasingly threatening.
In the circumstances, the offer by Chinese officials at a monthly meeting in Bahrain this week of international navies trying to keep shipping lanes free of pirates was unexpected, bold and magnanimous.
The EU had not asked to be relieved of duties, but had made clear it was having difficulty coping with rising demands for escorts for food shipments and protecting commercial shipping. China's stepping into the breach would free up more resources to counter the rising number and spread of piracy attacks. It seems likely to be accepted and when it is, Beijing is likely to pull all stops out to do the job properly.
Indeed, China's gradual joining of the multinational anti-piracy naval force has been very successful. From first offering three navy escort vessels for convoys to protect Hong Kong, mainland and Taiwanese ships 17 months ago, to their tour of duty in the Indian Ocean three months later, the Chinese involvement has won praise from companies and governments.
Beijing is also chairing meetings of the co-ordinating anti-piracy task force and last month, pledged to widen its involvement by joining patrols through the Gulf of Aden. More navy vessels will have to be deployed. Exactly how many is unclear, but the EU has escorted at least 50 food shipments on the 10-day round-trip from Kenya to Somalia and many more are sought. The convoy in the gulf will need several extra vessels. The pirates' ever-widening reach into the Indian Ocean may mean even more deployments.
Suspicions about China's international ambitions have eased as a result of its involvement. One of the best ways of getting to better know a nation and its people is, after all, to work more closely with them. The operation has boosted confidence in the nation's military and its capabilities. This model has to be used as the basis for co-operating on other global challenges. Not all governments are pleased. India is not eager for an expanded Chinese military presence in the Indian Ocean. China, as any other nation, has a right to protect its interests on land and sea - but given the concerns, it has to tread diplomatically. Beijing is rapidly learning about major international operations and how they are conducted. This is good for the nation and the world, and one hopes, only one step among many more to becoming a dedicated, determined global partner.