This week, three Chinese vessels join an international task force operating in the Gulf of Aden to protect shipping from attacks by Somali pirates, marking the first time since the 15th century that Chinese warships have sailed so far from home.
This reflects a marked strengthening of Chinese military capabilities since the country shifted its focus three decades ago from supporting revolutionary movements around the world to the development of its economy.
The decision to send two destroyers and a supply ship could not have been taken lightly. China had been accused of being a free rider, relying on Washington to keep open sea lanes for China-bound ships carrying oil and other cargo from Africa and the Middle East. The U.S. has exhorted China to be a "responsible stakeholder" and the Chinese, in explaining their decision to send warships to the Gulf of Aden, said they're just discharging their responsibility. Their decision was announced after the United Nations Security Council authorized international forces to combat piracy and, indeed, to pursue pirates on land.
China has long had a policy of non-interference in other countries' internal affairs, but its anti-piracy effort does not violate that principle because Somalia has welcomed its participation. But China knew that, by sending three ships, it would revive fears of a "China threat." That's why Beijing is trying to depict its action as that of a responsible power.
In the end, China really had no choice. In the past year, seven cases of hijacking by Somali pirates involved Beijing, either because the ships were owned by China or had Chinese crews. (One Chinese ship is still being held by Somali pirates.) Moreover, the day before Beijing disclosed its decision, a Chinese ship was attacked by pirates. The attempt was thwarted by Malaysia. It would be difficult for China to explain why tiny Malaysia could contribute forces to protect international shipping when a large country such as China stayed passive.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said the purpose of the mission was "to ensure the safety of Chinese ships and personnel on the route and protect vessels of international organizations carrying humanitarian materials." This is a rather narrow definition. After all, if Malaysia can help a Chinese ship under attack, there is no reason why Chinese forces should not be deployed to assist non-Chinese ships.
It is very likely that, once the Chinese ships begin their patrols, they will find it advantageous to co-ordinate their actions with warships from other countries. This in itself would be a positive development since it would, in effect, revive a military-to-military dialogue with the U.S. that China suspended to protest against arms sales to Taiwan.
While Washington has welcomed Beijing's contribution to the anti-piracy effort, there are undoubtedly mixed feelings as China moves slowly from a coastal navy to a blue-water navy. The U.S. has little to fear at present, but competition from China will increase.
The same week that China announced the dispatch of its warships, its Defence Ministry confirmed it was giving serious consideration to building aircraft carriers. The spokesman quickly added that China "has a long coastline and the sacred duty of China's armed forces is to safeguard the country's marine safety and sovereignty over coastal areas and territorial seas."
Given the Taiwan context, the U.S. has to consider the implications of China's rise as a naval power. Similarly, Japan, which has disputes with China over energy resources in the East China Sea, cannot afford to be complacent.
But the bottom line is that China is not only integrated into the world economy but also into all aspects of global life. Protecting its shipping is part and parcel of China's participation in the new world order.
Frank Ching is author of China: The Truth About Its Human Rights Record.