But the Chinese military is improving its capacity for dealing with smaller-scale threats that do not involve potential forcible entry into a hostile area, but still involve long-range deployments. Improved abilities to show the flag and assist with humanitarian missions and other military operations other than war can potentially allow a limited expeditionary military capacity to yield substantial diplomatic benefits for China.
Missions To Date
The PLA Navy’s anti-piracy mission to the Gulf of Aden, now over two years old, is proving highly successful. The 2010 China Defense White Paper noted that by the end of 2010, the PLA Navy (or PLAN)had dispatched 7 sorties with 18 ship deployments, 16 embarked helicopters,and 490 Special Operation Force(SOF)soldiers. Using means including accompanying escort, area patrol,and onboard escort, the PLAN has safeguarded 3,139 ships sailing under both the Chinese and foreign flags, rescued 29 other ships from pirate attacks and recovered 9 ships released from captivity by pirates.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The Gulf of Aden anti-piracy mission, in turn, helped improve the Chinese military’s readiness to take part in the February/March 2011 operation to evacuate more than 30,000 PRC citizens from strife torn Libya. While the majority of these left via chartered ships and aircraft or overland, the operation marked the first time China has deployed military assets to protect PRC citizens overseas. Beijing deployed Xuzhou, one of its most modern missile frigates, and also sent four IL-76 long-range military transport aircraft to help evacuate PRC citizens trapped near Sabha in central Libya.
A key reason Xuzhou was a useful asset in the Libya contingency was because it was already forward deployed as part of China’s anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. Senior PLAN and civilian leaders are receiving a firsthand lesson in how useful forward deployed military assets are for a country like China that has increasingly global interests. The anti-piracy missions cracked open the door, but in the wake of the Libya evacuation, there is a strong likelihood that the PLAN will seek to assume a more sustained presence in the Indian Ocean region, perhaps extending toward the Persian Gulf as well.
The PLA Navy led the way on China’s first expeditionary mission, the GoA anti-piracy deployment, but the PLA Air Force has also been gaining experience in long-range operations through increasingly challenging military exercises that are helping it improve relevant capabilities such as aerial refueling and long-range strike. In September 2010 the PLAAF deployedSU-27’s to the Operation Anatolian Eagle exercise in Turkey and the planes reportedly made refueling stops in Pakistan and Iran, according to Hurriyet news. In addition, during the September 2010 Peace Mission multilateral exercise with Kazakhstan and Russia, Chinese J-10s operating from bases in Xinjiang and supported by aerial refueling conducted a 2,000km strike mission with live ordnance against targets in Kazakhstan, according to reports.