A Chinese warship successfully completed its first escort of a ship carrying World Food Programme (WFP) aid along the lawless coast of Somalia, and more such escorts are expected as European Union naval forces are stretched.
The frigate Maanshan, carrying a team of special forces troops, picked up the MV Amina in the Somali port of Berbera on Tuesday last week and escorted it along the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden to Bossasso on Friday, EU naval officials confirmed yesterday.
'We are highly appreciative of the Chinese efforts,' said Wing Commander Paddy O'Kennedy, the EU naval forces' spokesman. 'Everything seemed to go very smoothly.'
Asked whether it was likely to result in more similar missions, O'Kennedy said: 'I hope so.'
A statement from the EU naval forces, which co-ordinated the mission, noted the historic nature of the operation and the 'mutual understanding' with the Chinese forces.
'This is evidence of good co-ordination and co-operation with one of the many partners in the fight against piracy,' the statement said.
People's Liberation Army officials have yet to give detailed accounts of the escort beyond a brief mention in the PLA Daily - despite the continuing expansion of an anti-piracy effort in the Indian Ocean.
The mission appears to suggest an appetite for more risk in the minds of PLA naval strategists as they grow more comfortable with the anti-piracy efforts, according to foreign military attaches and analysts. China's deployment of warships to the Gulf of Aden in December 2008 marked the first time its vessels had entered a zone of conflict beyond its home waters in centuries.
'This is a very significant step on a lot of levels,' said London-based PLA analyst Gary Li. 'Approaching the Somali coast adds a whole new element of danger. It also shows a gradually increasing comfort level in dealing with foreign navies.
'But it does seem unusual that it hasn't yet been played up on the mainland.'
The Maanshan, a Type 54 frigate equipped with a Z-9 helicopter, has been used on repeated anti-piracy deployments, and its crew are considered among the navy's most highly experienced.
Somalia, a failed state, has no central government, and its coastline is home to many pirate strongholds.
The effort also signified China is comfortable with potentially having to take military action within another state's 12-nautical mile zone of territorial waters, albeit under a UN mandate.
'You have to get close to be effective in this kind of work,' said one naval official familiar with Somalia. 'That means running the escort right up to the ports. That's where the food ships are at their most vulnerable.'
Last week's mission followed months of planning. The South China Morning Post reported in March last year that PLA officials had surprised international peers by offering to help the EU with escort work.
It was an unprecedented act of military diplomacy by a navy that has traditionally been considered one of the region's most isolated and secretive, and reflects a range of other efforts at winning friends beyond the region in recent months.
The EU had been appealing for other nations among the 40-odd navies involved in anti-piracy work to help, fearing their ships were being tied up on the WFP shipments rather than the fight against worsening attacks around the Horn of Africa and across the Indian Ocean.
Russia, a potential strategic rival of China in the Indian Ocean, offered to help soon after the Chinese side had, and completed an escort in the middle of last year.
Planning started accelerating after the leaders of the Chinese anti-piracy task force met their EU naval colleagues aboard a Spanish warship in February.
They have been co-ordinating daily since then.
Of the 105 escorts run since late 2008, 95 have been operated by the EU, with Nato, Russia and now China responsible for the rest.
The WFP pre-dates the piracy scourge, with an estimated 3.6 million Somalis - half its population - needing outside help. Over the past year, the WFP has tried to get constant supplies to at least 2.5 million of them.
Food aid shipments were early targets of pirates, but not one attack has been successful since the escorts started.
The PLA has used the anti-piracy work to foster a range of international relationships, staging its first forays into the Mediterranean while also visiting new ports across the Middle East.