And now the Chinese navy in Somali waters…

December 17, 2008

Chinese naval ships may soon be steaming into the Gulf of  Aden to join a growing fleet of international warships fighting  Somali pirates.

A first probably for a navy that has long confined itself to its own waters, the move is certain to stir interest in the strategic community stretching from New Delhi to Washington.

Chinese state media on Wednesday quoted Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei as telling a UN Security Council meeting that Beijing  was considering sending naval ships on escort duty in the troubled waters.

On the face of it, as Beijing would argue, too much should not be read into its naval deployment off the Somali waters. Theirs will be one of a number of navies patrolling the region such as
the United States, India, Greece, Saudi Arabia, France, Russia, Britain and Pakistan.

Besides, Chinese vessels have been attacked by the pirates in recent months giving them as much justification for escort duty as anyone else operating there. The latest was on Tuesday when a Chinese fishing vessel was seized in the Gulf of Aden, along with three other ships including a yacht.

But China’s military has been the subject of relentless scrutiny and any move it makes will be closely watched especially in regional capitals such as Tokyo and New Delhi. India, one of the biggest navies in the Indian Ocean boasting of an aircraft carrier group, has long looked over its shoulder watching for signs of a creeping Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

If nothing else, its role in helping Pakistan build its Gwadar port on the Baluchistan coast  is a matter of concern for Indian navy planners who worry that the deep water port is a key element of China’s “String of Pearls” strategy of  extending its influence from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean and on to the Arabian Gulf through  a chain of outposts.

The strategic message of the deployment in the Gulf of Aden is not lost on Chinese experts either. The state-run China Daily quoted a Chinese military strategist as saying it would be a good opportunity for the navy to get into the thick of action in waters far away from home.

“Apart from fighting pirates, another key goal is to register the presence of the Chinese navy,” Prof Li Jie, a naval researcher, told the paper.

Is that partly what this is burst of activity in the region is about? Are navies flexing their muscles, stepping out of their comfort zones, running up alongside unlikely partners? Imagine Iranian and U.S. naval vessels operating in the same waters against the same enemy?

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