Features | Security | East Asia

China and the International Antipiracy Effort

Preferring to go it alone, Beijing still makes positive parallel contributions. Part two of a two-part series.

By Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange for

China has achieved many firsts under the umbrella of antipiracy. These include its first major contributions to securing sea lines of communication (SLOC), a commendable start. World navies do better at protecting vulnerable maritime regions when they cooperate. There are manifold reasons for this: the transnational economic and political damage that piracy wreaks, the vast area of the western Indian Ocean in which pirates attack, the large number of merchant ships traversing these waters, the diversity of flag states responsible for them, and the resource-intensiveness of naval response options. Accordingly, numerous regional and international antipiracy mechanisms have been established in key strategic areas on the basis of this principle. These systems have made measurable progress in reducing pirate attacks in areas such as the Gulf of Aden. Nonetheless, the Chinese government has chosen to have its People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) act unilaterally, albeit in parallel with international efforts. Several other states have made similar policy decisions. Despite its status as an independent provider of SLOC security, however, the PLAN’s coordination with Western antipiracy forces suggests that China can contribute in parallel with, rather than threaten to destabilize, existing maritime governance mechanisms in the Far Seas.

As China and other states transition towards “ocean economies,” piracy and other non-traditional threats continue to jeopardize the stability of the crucial waterways that deliver the lion’s share of world trade. Given their unconventional features such as uncertainty of origin, unpredictability, and unresponsiveness to diplomatic efforts, suppressing non-traditional security threats often requires the concerted efforts of multiple state actors. As the fifth anniversary of China’s Gulf of Aden deployment draws near, what does China’s approach to international antipiracy cooperation reveal about its impact on global maritime governance?

Multilateral coordination mechanisms have enabled China to maintain its status as an independent public goods provider while actively strengthening bilateral naval relations and helping build a 21st-century architecture for global maritime governance. While engaging in numerous highly publicized confidence-building activities with counterpart navies and multilateral antipiracy forces, the PLAN has preferred that its escort task forces operate largely on their own, treating exchanges with other navies as bilateral diplomatic sweeteners, added bonuses to its core piracy responsibilities. This behavior comports with China’s official approach, which advocates “striving to make independent, self-derived, peaceful foreign policy.”

The PLAN is not alone in deploying independent forces to the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa to mitigate the effects of piracy. Such states as India, Iran, Japan and Russia have also deployed substantial naval capacity outside multilateral structures. At any given time, Japan is typically operating two warships in the area tasked with antipiracy support, while Russia and India will usually have one each deployed. Independent operators have participated in official exchanges with multilateral mechanisms, though they have not adopted policies identical to those of any of the multilateral task forces in the Gulf of Aden: Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), NATO’s Operation OCEAN SHIELD, and the EU’s Operation ATALANTA, known colloquially as the “Three Forces,” or operated under CMF’s Combined Task Force (CTF)-150 or -151. As Chinese scholars Liu Jingsheng and Shao Guoyu point out, China, Japan, India and Russia generally have preferred to carry out “accompanying escorts” while other navies use “zoned escorts” and patrols. The latter approach has been a key facilitator of the coordination mechanisms between these navies.

Its independent identity notwithstanding, the PLAN has actively engaged with other navies whom it perceives as being “in the same boat” with regard to contemporary maritime piracy. The Shared Awareness and Deconfliction (SHADE) mechanism, which meets quarterly in Bahrain, has been the primary interface for that engagement. All naval ships or convoys fighting piracy are considered affiliated members. SHADE is not an organization but a facilitating venue. It is chaired by EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) and the CMF Chief of Staff (with NATO co-chairing some meetings more recently), and seeks to avoid redundancies within multilateral and independent deployer operations. SHADE was originally drawn up by EUNAVFOR and CMF because each side recognized the “benefits of a loose confederation of the willing.” SHADE’s Terms of Reference explain the mandate and functions of the mechanism. The U.S. provides funding for SHADE; however it is not simply U.S.-led, as U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) do not do any tasking and all involved navies maintain sovereignty and vetoes over their participation. SHADE meetings, often attended by a multitude of antipiracy stakeholders including representatives from navies and governments, businesses and NGOs, are reported to have a collegial atmosphere based on the common goal of eradicating piracy.

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According to U.S. naval officials, media reports that China was to assume chairmanship of SHADE are erroneous. China reportedly lobbied to chair SHADE as early as November 2009, but it was unsuccessful. While a Chinese colonel has attended all 27 SHADE meetings thus far, Chinese chairmanship would have meant that an independent state, rather than a multilateral organization, had a leading role in SHADE. While all independent deployers have a seat at the main table during SHADE meetings, a representative of an independent navy has never chaired the mechanism. According to SHADE’s Terms of Reference, “In order to be eligible to chair SHADE, a nation or coalition must provide enduring assets available for task allocation within the IRTC” (Internationally Recommended Transit Corridor), a patrolled route through the Gulf of Aden established by the EU’s Maritime Security Centre-Horn of Africa (MSCHOA) in 2009. A prospective chair must also “actively coordinate in accordance with the provisions of the IRTC Coordination Guide.”

That said, China has made genuine contributions to the collective effort in sync with Western navies, such as adjusting its escort convoy route five miles north to avoid coverage overlap with CMF. To date, China’s operational participation in SHADE, particularly within the Convoy Coordination Working Group (CCWG), which meets the day before SHADE does, has been very active: January through March 2012 was considered a trial period for coordinating escort schedules among China, India and Japan. South Korea and Russia have also contributed to varying degrees.

While SHADE remains chaired by Western naval forces, this model of cooperation may actually suit Beijing since participation is voluntary and does not place any navy under the authority of another, whereas multilateral forces such as CTF-151 are commanded by the U.S.-led CMF. Moreover, in the hypothetical event that China did wish to integrate into CTF-151’s antipiracy mission in principle, it would be unlikely to adopt membership prerequisites in practice. To participate in CTF-151, one must first be a member of CMF, which requires navies to install Combined Enterprise Regional Information Exchange System (CENTRIXS) software, a classified platform that allows inter-navy cooperation through encrypted channels. CENTRIXS provision hinges on stable, deep trust among CMF forces. The authors’ interviews with experts on and participants in Gulf of Aden antipiracy operations, such as Lieutenant Commander Glen Forbes, RN (Ret.), who now manages the piracy and maritime security information-sharing platform OCEANUSLive, reveal important dynamics concerning the nature of such collaborative platforms.

Non-Western states like China and Russia, for instance, have been unwilling to allow the deployment of U.S. communications infrastructure on their surface platforms. As a result, the EU’s Mercury network-based system has emerged as a convenient alternative, and compared to CENTRIXS it has lower bandwidth requirements. In particular, the PLAN was quick to adopt Mercury as it represented not only a convenient way to communicate with CMF, EU and NATO forces in the region that was more secure than commercial email accounts previously used, but also allowed China to study NATO-based communication protocols, nomenclature and code words employed by Western forces to facilitate effective communication. Upon its acceptance of the Mercury platform, the PLAN reportedly sent an official transmission through Mercury in four languages declaring its position and desire to be part of the inter-navy efforts.

The active participation by China (as well as other non-CMF states such as Russia) in SHADE activities already represents a breakthrough in terms of integration into existing U.S.-established and -led security mechanisms. In March 2013 Lieutenant Colonel Chen Peiling, during a report for the 27th SHADE meeting, revealed that PLAN vessels had deployed units south of the Mandeb Strait following the completion of their escort duties to help the “Three Forces” fill patrol gaps. He also reported that in September 2012 frigate Yiyang delayed its replenishment stop at Saudi Arabia and spent twenty hours assisting U.S. container ship President Polk, which was having engine problems. During the 26th SHADE meeting in December 2012 it was revealed that China was continuing to work positively with the Three Forces, including the sharing of maritime patrol craft imagery during recent operations. While these instances all indicate meaningful progress, cooperation within SHADE and the forum it provides are not equivalent to the inter-navy cooperation that occurs in mechanisms that are able to capitalize on secure communications.

Moreover, engagement between multilateral and independent naval forces vis-à-vis SHADE has revealed key differences in the nature of participants’ contributions. For example, while China’s operations are limited in scope as they are focused on IRTC security and commercial escorts, the Three Forces conduct active patrols throughout the Indian Ocean. EUNAVFOR and NATO currently focus primarily on antipiracy off the coast of Somalia and CMF conducts active patrols throughout the Indian Ocean, while addressing counterterrorism and antipiracy in the Gulf of Aden. As one SHADE administrator put it, “In SHADE and in other aspects of antipiracy operations, China is trying to validate its own contributions, but not to change the status quo.” These contributions are certainly welcome, though the Three Forces still desire deeper cooperation. For example, EUNAVFOR has attempted to persuade the PLAN to adopt underway replenishment (UNREP) doctrine compatible with its own, albeit unsuccessfully. Similarly, Russia’s navy has express willingness to help fill coverage gaps left by the Three Forces if informed 90 days in advance, but this remains unrealized in practice.

Similarly, China is facing major decisions as the larger international community inches toward a policy that involves antipiracy missions ashore on a larger scale. Such a shift could fundamentally alter how the international community addresses piracy in the future. It would not be surprising if Beijing remained content simply to escort commercial vessels off Somalia’s coast, deterring attacks and magnifying its own contributions to their observed aggregate reduction. However, Chinese official commentary has echoed the international consensus that piracy is rooted in systemic problems onshore and is not simply a matter of isolated groups of seafaring bandits seeking easy profit. General Chen Bingde voiced this notion in his previous position as PLA Chief of General Staff. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that China’s military, as long as it continues to operate independently, will move from offshore patrols and escorts to aggressive assaults on suspected pirate lairs on land, even as China’s foreign policy approaches towards intervention and international affairs are arguably evolving in practice.

Regardless, several trends and decisions over the past two years signal that China is considering deeper cooperation to minimize the expense of continuing to deter piracy through naval operations alone. First, naval officers of the states that operate independently are holding more frequent inter-navy antipiracy dialogues as they interact through SHADE with representatives of navies currently under the command of the CTF-151, NATO and EU antipiracy structures. Second, the PLAN has assigned one of its vessels to monitor the IRTC alongside CTF-151 ships. Third, the PLAN’s escort of World Food Program supplies through the Gulf of Aden, highly publicized domestically and internationally by state media, signals Chinese willingness to assume greater international responsibility for global economic stability. Finally, as previously mentioned, Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government has essentially invited Chinese presence onshore. This last factor in particular could help surmount China’s major foreign-policy hurdles concerning sovereignty issues, since consent of the sovereign is the strongest authority under international law for a country’s forces to act within another’s territory. This is especially important in that when it made the initial decision to deploy naval forces to the Gulf of Aden, Beijing emphasized that sovereign consent and UN imprimatur were key factors it had considered.

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The PLAN will likely be open in principle to the possibility of greater cooperation in the Gulf of Aden and in other regions where antipiracy operations remain nascent. There are no signs, however, that China will decide to operate under the aegis of a multinational apparatus in the near future: Beijing does not perceive the benefits in joining collaborative efforts as outweighing the costs, nor do its partners necessarily view integrating China fully as beneficial to their own national security. Independent operation avoids any situation in which China would have to subordinate itself – even symbolically – to another state or organization, and it provides the PLAN with considerable freedom to alter its missions without having to notify its partners or undergo lengthy multilateral consultations and deliberations. For now, it appears that while Beijing is eager to increase cooperation quantitatively off the Horn of Africa, this cooperation is likely to entail increased basic coordination, low-level information sharing, navy-to-navy exchanges, and joint operations – all of which China’s navy does already. While these incremental breakthroughs are universally welcome, qualitative breakthroughs will likely take more time.

This article 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.