The navy of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is keen to expand its Indian Ocean footprint, not just to boost anti-piracy deployments but also to extend its presence in strategic areas such as the Middle East and North Africa, according to mainland naval experts.
However, it also wants more support - including logistical help - from major anti-piracy fleets such as European Union naval forces and Nato - assistance foreign naval officers say could be difficult to arrange unless the Chinese show more flexibility.
Song Xiaojun, a Beijing-based PLA naval expert, said the country had long-term strategic interests that went beyond piracy off the Horn of Africa. 'China will definitely want to play a key role and share more responsibilities in protecting maritime trade for the international community in the future,' said Song, a retired naval officer and an editor of a prominent naval magazine. 'Technically, there is no problem for China to send extra warships to Somali waters. The Chinese navy has had three years of anti-piracy experience in the high seas, while we have the military and economic capabilities to do that.
'The key question is, first, if it is worth doing. As China makes bigger contributions to the international community, we should get more support. Are France and other countries ready to provide Chinese warships the necessary logistical back-up? Will EU [naval forces] and Nato strengthen their co-operation with the PLA? Will they even lift the arms embargo on China?
'Indeed, I think that in the long run, not only will China enhance its naval presence in the Somali waters, it will also want to extend to North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea.'
His comments follow a report that China and other navies running independent anti-piracy patrols in the Indian Ocean would be under pressure to send more ships as Western navies struggle to maintain their current deployments.
The PLA navy has maintained a revolving three-ship deployment off the Horn of Africa since late 2008 - its first foray into a conflict zone beyond its home waters in centuries. They run their own convoys, communicating with, but not under the control of, larger international flotillas.
Senior European naval officials said while China's efforts were welcome, logistics remained Beijing's responsibility, as they operated independently and apparently did not want to be under any joint command. 'In practical terms, it is hard to imagine deeper co-operation in this area,' said a senior European navy official. 'Logistics are a very specialised field and something an independent navy has to be responsible for.'
Professor Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military expert, noted the importance of having a clearer international mandate to help legitimise China's involvement and access.
'Every time when we carry out some military activities outside China - no matter how unthreatening they are, some people will stir up the 'China threat' noise, saying we are expanding overseas,' Ni said.
'If EuNavFor [the European Union Naval Force] and Nato want to see China playing a bigger role in the anti-piracy missions, they should invite China to join an international military co-operation mechanism and provide more support for China's involvement. Only when China has acquired the necessary mandate and could access overseas bases with legitimacy, then our navy could carry out these tasks without worries.'
Gary Li, a PLA watcher with intelligence firm Exclusive Analysis, said: 'China has all these new captains and new ships coming on stream and it wants to use them,' he said.