from Asia Unbound

Erickson and Strange: Spring Training for the Big Leagues

The Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) frigate Yi Yang transits the Gulf of Aden prior to conducting a bilateral counter-...issile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill in the Gulf of Aden on September 17, 2012. (Aaron Chase, U.S. Navy/Courtesy Reuters)

September 9, 2013

The Chinese People's Liberation Army (Navy) frigate Yi Yang transits the Gulf of Aden prior to conducting a bilateral counter-...issile destroyer USS Winston S. Churchill in the Gulf of Aden on September 17, 2012. (Aaron Chase, U.S. Navy/Courtesy Reuters)
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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I am delighted to introduce the first of a four-part blog series that will be running through December on the PLA Navy by Andrew Erickson, an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College, and Austin Strange, a researcher for the College’s China Maritime Studies Institute. Throughout the series, they will be tackling issues associated with the Chinese navy’s antipiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and their impact on China’s naval development, power projection, and international influence.    —Elizabeth Economy

With tensions ongoing in the contested Near Seas (Yellow, East, and South China Seas), China’s Gulf of Aden (GoA) antipiracy operations merit closer examination. Since December 26, 2008, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has dispatched twenty-eight of its most powerful vessels in fifteen multi-ship antipiracy deployments to the GoA. There they safeguard legitimate Chinese interests and make welcome international security contributions. It is after the navy’s flotillas return that they become a double-edged sword for the United States and its Asia-Pacific allies and friends from the global maritime partnerships team: for these are the same surface platforms and personnel the PLAN would call on to support Near Seas sovereignty claims, and antipiracy experience is improving them rapidly. The same naval team that China trains in the GoA’s warm waters will be better prepared to perform in multiple ballparks: not just goodwill exhibition games but hard-core competition where it counts most.

Absent traditional military conflict, GoA operations offer China one of the best ways to improve its navy. The frigates, destroyers, amphibious vessels, and replenishment ships deployed to fight Somali piracy, with helicopters and equipment aboard, generally have two things in common: they are some of China’s newest, most powerful platforms; and they are largely untested pre-deployment. Rotating antipiracy duties among China’s South, East, and North Sea Fleets demonstrates desire to spread operational experience up and down China’s eastern seaboard and helps prepare China’s first carrier group.

It’s not just about the boats. As any naval expert will attest, it’s the people who matter most. The PLAN therefore sends the cream of the crop on these operations to harvest new skills. It’s no coincidence that:

  • by the seventh deployment, roughly half the personnel aboard were serving in the GoA for a second time
  • many helicopter pilots are of senior rank and have logged thousands of flight hours
  • participation in antipiracy missions is linked to military pay grades

Many fundamental tactical skills the PLAN is learning from its antipiracy operations are what the U.S. Navy terms “mission-essential tasks.” They are useful for manifold naval-warfare domains and missions, ranging far beyond antipiracy. GoA deployments’ most valuable gift to China’s Navy is the unscripted, unpredictable situations that it imposes on the otherwise risk-averse organization. Given imperfect information in real operational environments, personnel must think on their feet. Daily GoA operations strengthen rapid-response capabilities indispensable in contexts requiring effective crisis management—precisely the sorts of scenarios that could erupt in the Near Seas.

Comprehensive naval power depends equally on the institutions that support ships and sailors. Antipiracy operations serve as invaluable venues for testing Chinese satellites and new communications technology away from home. China’s Beidou navigation system, for example, has been installed on Chinese antipiracy warships and allows the PLAN to locate and track naval and commercial ships in real time. Lessons learned off Somalia can pay dividends in East Asian waters, where surveillance helps support states’ sovereignty claims.

China’s antipiracy yield is not simply one of increasing distant sea naval capabilities or providing public security goods—it is far broader. Antipiracy deployments come home stronger. Lessons learned in the Far Seas will pay dividends in the Near Seas long after the last sailor returns from the GoA.

The bottom line for the United States and its friends and allies is this: China will continue to strengthen its naval team, and prepare it to play to win in all relevant ballparks. Away games will feature good sportsmanship and support popular charities; Beijing should be encouraged to spend more days on the road and play in more stadiums. It’s the prospect of home games that’s worrisome. Currently no true matches are scheduled, but were they held, China would have a homefield advantage, well-equipped players, and highly motivated fans demanding victory from well-positioned bleachers. Washington may not always be able to act as the umpire but needs to keep up its game to make sure everyone plays by the rules.

This post draws on the authors’ monograph “No Substitute for Experience: Chinese Anti-Piracy Operations in the Gulf of Aden,” Naval War College China Maritime Study 10 (forthcoming 2013). It reflects solely their personal views.

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