A decision by China to send navy vessels for sustained operations in remote waters would be an important step for its engagement in global affairs, mainland experts say. But it would signal a gradual change and not a fundamental departure from its conservative foreign policy. If Beijing sends warships to join an international effort to fight piracy in the waters off Somalia, it would be the first time in modern history the Chinese navy has ventured out of its territorial waters on a military expedition. Beijing has said it would consider sending frigates to the Gulf of Aden, but made it clear they would 'protect and escort vessels' rather than 'combat pirates' full on. Mainland experts yesterday stressed that the proposed move was a far cry from gunboat diplomacy. 'The nature of this operation is akin to a peacekeeping mission at sea, and China sees itself as fulfilling an international responsibility,' said Li Wei , director of the anti-terrorism research centre at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. 'There has been no breakthrough in its foreign policy because the mission is still being carried out within the framework of the UN.' Ni Lexiong , a military affairs professor at the Shanghai Institute of Political Science and Law, agreed the decision would be far from a shift towards a more proactive military approach to protect overseas Chinese nationals. China, in his view, was being forced to participate. 'China's reluctance can be shown in how it is deciding to step in only after so many countries have sent their navies and the hijacking of several Chinese ships,' Professor Ni said. He noted the growing pressure on China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to undertake such missions. Even the Chinese people, he said, questioned their government for not taking action. Since 'paying the pirates ransom would be more economically viable', the mission would be less driven by a desire to protect China's own economic interests, than careful balances of political concerns, Professor Ni said. For that reason, observers were not expecting a big fleet or any action that aimed to 'impress'. However, many details still needed to be hammered out, and complications could be expected, experts said. Unlike the United States or Russia, China does not have military bases in the area, and it is much further from the area than India. China does not have a port-call agreement with nearby countries either, making supplies an expensive logistical problem. Another problem lies in co-ordination. Whether China will escort a ship all the way through, or co-ordinate with other countries to cover the route in relay, has not been decided. Ma Ding-shing, a Hong Kong-based commentator on military affairs, said that contrary to a lot of speculation about China's delayed decision, the capacity of its navy was not in doubt. The Chinese navy has sailed far in recent years - including a round-the-world trip in 2002 - and fighting pirates armed with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons would not require particularly sophisticated firearms. The biggest challenge for China is how deeply engaged it wants to be. The Chinese military has always been a closed system. It has never co-operated in actual missions with other navies, Mr Ma said. 'If it were to co-ordinate with other navies in combating pirates, there is a risk that its military secrets and organisational weakness will be revealed.' He Wenping , director of African studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the ultimate solution was to raise the Somali government's capacity to govern, a position advocated by Vice-Foreign Minister He Yafei at the UN.