China and the Far Seas
Chinese commando on the Yancheng
Image Credit: REUTERS/Andreas Manolis

China and the Far Seas


While the U.S. and its allies perceive Beijing’s conduct as increasingly destabilizing in the Yellow, East, and South China Seas (“Near Seas”), China continues to incrementally diversify its contributions to international security outside of East Asia. Beijing’s recent dispatch of a guided missile frigate to the Mediterranean Sea to help escort Syrian chemical weapons on their way to neutralization reflects China’s pursuit of new avenues for providing public goods. While it is too early to tell precisely how China may develop its navy or pursue access to overseas facilities in order to expand its maritime commons presence in the coming years, Syrian chemical weapons destruction and other missions are useful reminders that China’s ongoing anti-piracy efforts provide a useful “Far Seas” presence that will be hard to replace as the Gulf of Aden mission winds down.

On December 17, 2013, just over a week before the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) celebrated five years of anti-piracy escorts in the Gulf of Aden, China revealed that it, along with Russia and others, will be assisting in the transport of deadly chemical weapons used in Syria’s civil war. According to Dong Manyuan, an anti-terrorism analyst at the China Institute of International Studies, “The Chinese navy’s escort helps ensure the smooth progress of the destruction and creates favorable conditions for a peaceful resolution of the Syrian issue.” China’s non-confrontational, complementary escort role is unsurprising given that Beijing previously vetoed multiple UN resolutions to impose sanctions on Syria and resolutely opposed any form of external intervention in Syria’s internal conflict.

The chemical weapon neutralization operation, and China’s participation therein, rest on UNSC Resolution 2118, which was adopted unanimously in late September 2013, and outlined general timelines for the destruction of 1,300 metrics tons of chemical weapons used in Syria’s ongoing civil war. In October, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an intergovernmental organization in cooperation with the United Nations, helped set initial timetables of December 31, 2013 and June 30, 2014 for the destruction of the remaining Syrian chemical weapons – the most critical – in collaboration with the UN.

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Syria and the international community ultimately missed the first deadline, and naval ships deployed by Denmark and Norway were sent back to wait in Cyprus on December 31 following security tensions near a Syrian chemical facility from which weapons would have presumably been transferred. More recently, insurgent groups attacked two storage sites on January 8, complicating removal of more weapons out of Syria.

Nonetheless, the removal mission is underway. Chinese guided missile frigate Yancheng arrived in Syrian territorial waters on January 7, proceeding to dock at Latakia Port and then escort the first batch of chemical weapons out of Syrian territory. Joining Yancheng in the escort of Danish and Norwegian ships was Russian missile cruiser Peter the Great. All four ships first rendezvoused in international waters off Syria before commencing the mission, during which China and Russia are reportedly working in coordination with, rather than under the command of, European forces.

The operation to extract and neutralize Syrian chemical weapons, including those that may have killed over 1400 people in a Damascus suburb in August 2013, is piecemeal in design. States including China and Russia are reportedly helping to transport the relevant chemical weapons by land to Syrian ports. Russia’s Defense Minister stated in December that Russia utilized 75 armored trucks and $2 million in other equipment and funds to remove weapons from warehouses and military installations in Syria. China also reportedly provided surveillance cameras and 10 ambulances to assist with the land-based transfer of chemical weapons in Syria. Finland sent an emergency response team in case of security contingencies.

From Syria, two Danish and Norwegian commercial vessels and frigates are loading hundreds of tons of chemical agents and transferring them to the U.S. Maritime Administration vessel Cape Ray in Italy. The U.S. military has been preparing equipment to neutralize Syrian chemical weapons since late 2013; Cape Ray is expected to leave port in two weeks. It is unclear exactly how many transport batches will be involved, although estimates for completing all transfers range from weeks to months. The U.K. has also agreed to destroy 150 tons of industrial-grade pharmaceutical chemicals once shipped from Syria at a later date. Germany has also made commitments to help destroy a portion of the weapons. In other words, China’s escort is an auxiliary but useful link in a larger chain of events.

Yancheng’s deployment is made possible by China’s multiyear presence in the Gulf of Aden. Chinese Naval spokesperson Liang Yang stated on New Year’s Eve that Yancheng, after excusing itself of ongoing Chinese anti-piracy escorts, completed replenishment and refueling exercises at Saudi Arabia’s Port Jiddah and set sail for the Mediterranean at 4 P.M. local time that day. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang reported that as of Thursday January 3, the frigate was sailing through the Suez Canal and would cooperate with Russian frigates upon reaching Port Limmasol, Cyprus. Meanwhile, guided-missile frigate Luoyang and comprehensive supply ship Taihu are responsible for continuing Chinese anti-piracy escorts in the Gulf of Aden as part of the sixteenth taskforce since December 26, 2008.

According to China Daily, the PLAN’s chemical escort mission is the first time in which the PLAN will perform escorts in the Mediterranean Sea. A Xinhua article from December 19 stated that the PLAN would perform an escort from Syria to Italy, “which will be its debut in the Mediterranean.” Contrary to previous reports, however, this is not close to China’s first naval foray into the Mediterranean Sea. It is not even the first instance of a PLAN frigate providing protection services there.

Indeed, since 2008 the PLAN has maintained an active anti-piracy presence in and around the Gulf of Aden, a vitally strategic shipping waterway between Somalia and Yemen connecting the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean. China, like many other Asian economies, relies heavily on energy and commodity trade passing through the Gulf.

Gulf of Aden deployments since 2008 have enabled the PLAN to venture frequently into the Mediterranean under the aegis of fighting piracy. In summer 2012, PLAN anti-piracy flotillas docked in Istanbul, Turkey and Haifa, Israel for friendly visits. Similarly, in 2013 taskforces conducted 4-5 day friendly onshore stays in Mediterranean states such as Malta, France, Portugal and Greece. Anti-piracy deployments have allowed Chinese warships to cruise much of the Mediterranean, activities that previously might have been unnerving to European states and their allies. While Yancheng is currently serving its first-ever anti-piracy escort duties and has never visited the Mediterranean as part of an anti-piracy taskforce, many PLAN frigates and other surface platforms are familiar with the Mediterranean. The PLAN has been visiting European ports for over a decade, with extensive visits to Egypt, Turkey, Greece and Portugal dating to its first global circumnavigation in 2002.

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