The People's Liberation Army Navy was little noticed internationally before it joined the coalition protecting sea lanes in the Gulf of Aden from Somali pirates in 2008. China's naval modernisation has since been of particular interest, especially after the commissioning of the Liaoning aircraft carrier in 2012, disputes over islands in the East and South China seas and a resurgent US presence in the region. Chinese ambitions for a blue-water fleet have been eyed suspiciously by neighbours and rivals. Increased participation in global peace and security operations will go a considerable way towards countering negative perceptions.
Before the anti-piracy missions, Chinese naval vessels had not regularly ventured beyond territorial waters since Admiral Zheng He's exploratory voyages to Africa in the 15th century. The navy made its first Indian Ocean port calls in 1985 and visited Africa in 2000. In the past five years, though, long-range trips have been growing in number and frequency.
The latest is the deployment of the frigate Yancheng alongside vessels from Russia, Denmark and Norway as part of multinational efforts to dispose of Syria's chemical weapons. Close watch is being kept to ensure that the arms are delivered safely to a US ship for destruction. Earlier missions involved the sending of a frigate to Libya to support the evacuation of Chinese nationals during the 2011 civil war, providing an armed escort for World Food Programme shipments to refugees in Somalia and contributing servicemen to UN peace operations in Mali. Since 2010, the navy hospital ship Peace Ark has made worldwide forays, most recently to the typhoon-hit Philippines in November, where it treated 2,208 patients.
Such efforts have earned less attention than naval movements in East Asia and the launch of new vessels. A near collision on December 5 of two of the Liaoning's escort ships with a US Navy cruiser, the USS Cowpens, garnered particular concern, being viewed as a sign of increasing belligerence.
China has to modernise and enlarge its navy to protect territory and overseas interests while living up to the responsibilities expected of a global power. Security has to be provided for citizens, cargo vessels, energy shipments and trade routes. But better reach would also help with involvement in international peace and security operations. Greater participation in and publicity about missions will go a long way to building confidence and trust in the navy's evolution.