March 12, 2009

HARRISONBURG—Today in his weekly “Strategic Interests” column for the World Defense Review, Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, takes a closer look at the deployment of three vessels from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in the Gulf of Aden and nearby waters as part of a worldwide naval mobilization against the Somali pirates, examining the “ considerations, political and otherwise, beyond any marginal tactical utility motivating the launching of the PLAN’s first major operation abroad.” According to Dr. Pham, there are a number of factors at play, including:

First, there are domestic political considerations.. . Second, China’s leaders are constrained to maintain appearances abroad… Third, the deployment has also given the PRC an opportunity to assert its military umbrella not only over its recently reclaimed territories of Hong Kong and Macau, but also over what Beijing views as the breakaway province of Taiwan… Fourth, the vessels dispatched on the mission… represent the modern PLAN as well as China’s domestic naval industry at their best…Fifth, even as it shows itself off to other navies, the deployment gives the PLAN an unparalleled opportunity to observe the operations and tactics of other fleets up close in relatively tight quarters… Sixth, the Chinese navy now has a reason to do in the maritime environment off the east coast of Africa what the 1,636 PLA personnel assigned to six UN peacekeeping missions in Africa…have been doing: achieving a level of tactical and operational familiarity with the African environment that few other outside countries have mastered since the end of the colonial period…Seventh…Chinese leaders and others will not be unaware of the stake the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) has attempted to acquire in [Somalia’s] potential petroleum deposits… Eighth, while the deployment can be interpreted as proof of the PRC’s increasing willingness to bear its share of the burden for the maintenance of the freedom of the seas and other global commons…that same engagement might also signal something not quite as benign.


The article concludes:


The incident earlier this week whereby five Chinese ships, including a (PLAN) intelligence vessel, shadowed and blocked an unarmed civilian-manned American oceanographic ship, USNS Impeccable, operating in international waters south under the authority of the Military Sealift Command, is disconcerting, following as it does on the harassment, again in international waters, of another unarmed U.S. civilian ship, USNS Victorious, just last week by a Chinese patrol boat. These incidents are a reminder of the challenges that the United States and its allies can expect from a resurgent China shaking off what it views as the humiliating stain of colonialism on what is otherwise a millennial history of imperial glory. While alarmism contributes nothing to strategic analysis, neither is reflexive irenicism a particularly useful policy perspective. Hence, occasioned by these unfortunate incidents, American policymakers and analysts need to take another closer look at the recent deployment of a PLAN flotilla to the already crowded waters off the eastern coast of Africa, trying to understand China’s strategic calculus and discerning its implications for American interests, both in the region and beyond. Hysteria may be out of order, but prudent caution is still called for.


To read the full text of the article, “The Chinese Navy’s Somali Cruise,” click here.