Chinese Expeditions Boost Naval Expertise
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — China’s call for a naval base to support anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden appears to reflect a desire to expand its littoral warfare capabilities beyond its territorial waters.
A senior Chinese defense official has proposed setting up a permanent naval base to support ships patrolling the gulf, located between Somalia and Yemen.
The proposal was posted on China’s Ministry of Defense Web site in December by Adm. Yin Zhuo, a senior official assigned to the Equipment and Research Center of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
Since January 2009, the PLAN has sent four flotillas, consisting of two to three warships and one support ship, to the Gulf of Aden to conduct anti-piracy patrols on three-month rotations.
The PLAN has sent its two new 23,000-ton Qiandaohu-class replenishment ships to take turns supporting the mission, but China is limited in its ability to resupply the task force. According to a PLAN press release, the Type 054 Ma’anshan guided-missile frigate visited Salalah Port, Oman, for replenishment.
“Starting from that very day, the four warships of the fourth Chinese naval escort task force will berth in the port for rest and replenishment in succession to ensure the smooth implementation of the escort actions,” the release said.
Though the small flotilla has been getting some assistance from local countries such as Oman, PLAN sees the need for a permanent base to support future missions.
The PLAN has largely been a “littoral navy” most of its history, said Bud Cole, author of the book “The Great Wall at Sea.” The gulf mission is China’s first long-distance operational deployment, and it has been “operating almost entirely within a couple of hundred miles of the coast,” he said.
The littoral aspect of the mission has forced China to look toward a more permanent basing arrangement to support smaller vessels more suited for anti-piracy missions, such as fast attack patrol boats, and the creation of a land-based intelligence collection center, said Thomas Kane, a U.K.-based China military specialist and author of the book “Chinese Grand Strategy and Maritime Power.”
China’s current deployment is made up of frigates and destroyers, which are impractical against small pirate vessels, said Dean Cheng, a Chinese security affairs specialist at the Heritage Foundation.
“It is unlikely that the current form of PLA Navy operations in the Gulf of Aden would benefit PLA littoral combat capabilities,” he said. “It would, however, expose PLA Navy officers to some of the difficulties associated with littoral combat against unsophisticated opponents.
“Like counterinsurgency,” Cheng said, “this is a different proposition than taking on the U.S. or Soviet navies in China’s littoral waters. In short, the Chinese are learning about expeditionary littoral warfare, rather than defensive littoral warfare — a very different proposition.”
The deployment has highlighted China’s “deficiencies in their current naval capabilities,” said Sam Bateman, senior fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.
China’s littoral warfare capabilities are excellent but are limited to China’s territorial waters. A base in the region to support Chinese naval missions would be a “quantum leap in the PLAN’s current capabilities,” Bateman said.
Plans for a permanent base in the region, either in Africa or Pakistan, still appear to be hypothetical, but the gulf mission gives China the pretext to argue for establishment of remote land-based support facilities.
China has studied the writings of U.S. naval strategist A.T. Mahan, Kane said, adding that the Horn of Africa has a special significance to China.
“Nevertheless, whether China builds a base or not, its operations off Africa give its planners and military personnel the opportunity to gain experience in conducting littoral operations far from their own coast,” he said, “for operations in a littoral region have historically been critical to its destiny.”
Cheng agrees that expanding China’s military influence beyond its shores is critical for a rising China. PLAN expansion into the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea is “hardly surprising, given the PLA’s responsibilities, under Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin’s ‘New Historic Missions’ of safeguarding Chinese interests, including economic ones overseas.”
What this will mean for the U.S. Navy in the event of a Sino-U.S. showdown is unknown, sources said. China has learned the hard lessons of logistical support in the Gulf of Aden, and in a future conflict with the United States, the PLAN could target underway replenishment ships. Coupled with China’s development of anti-ship ballistic missiles to target U.S. aircraft carriers, attacks on U.S. Navy support vessels could be “devastating,” said one source.