Features | Security

China and the Far Seas

China’s Far Seas presence enables it to escort Syria’s chemical weapons marked for destruction.

By Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange for
China and the Far Seas

Chinese commando on the Yancheng

Credit: REUTERS/Andreas Manolis

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.

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.

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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.

Besides diplomatic friendly visits, PLAN naval escort taskforces have conducted replenishment and overhaul activities in the Mediterranean. In March 2011, for example, a PLAN taskforce docked in Crete, Greece to refuel. In August 2010, Chinese naval ships conducted joint drills with the Italian Navy during a friendly visit. More broadly, PLAN taskforce commanders meet sporadically with Mediterranean navies through multilateral anti-piracy mechanisms such as NATO and EU NAVFOR. The fact that PLAN ships have previously docked in Egypt, for instance, suggests that Beijing was able to smoothly arrange replenishment stops and land-based support for Yancheng. In addition, anti-piracy has allowed China’s navy to explore multiple peripheral regions of the Mediterranean since 2012 including the Black Sea, Strait of Gibraltar, and Red Sea, from where Yancheng entered the Mediterranean and where PLAN ships regularly dock at Port Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. These experiences give the PLAN the comfort and capability to escort Syrian chemical weapons successfully in the eyes of the world.

Such activities also reflect the confidence and skill obtained through anti-piracy operations that China has since applied to a multitude of international security issues. Occasionally the PLAN has helped safely escort UN World Food Programme vessels across pirate-infested waters near Somalia. In 2011, China deployed an anti-piracy naval ship to help oversee Chinese citizens’ evacuation from Libya during the Arab Spring Uprisings, in which 35,000 Chinese citizens were evacuated to Mediterranean states Greece, Malta, and Tunisia.

Now, Beijing’s presence in the Gulf of Aden has made contributing to the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons more feasible than it otherwise would have been. China’s coastline is approximately 10,000 kilometers from the Gulf of Aden, and even further from the Mediterranean. It takes many Chinese warships over two weeks to reach the latter destination, and it is uncertain whether a lack of naval presence in the Gulf of Aden would have precluded Yancheng’s deployment.

Thus, as the Syrian chemical weapons destruction cases illustrates, China’s five-year fight against Somali piracy has served as a springboard for other naval and diplomatic activities. However, as Beijing is learning, success comes with inflated expectations, and China will be expected to contribute more meaningfully across a range of international security threats in the21st century. Says Michael Frodl of C-LEVEL Maritime Risks, as budget cuts may trim U.S. anti-piracy resources, “countries that depend most on safe shipment in the region – like oil exporter Saudi Arabia and oil recipient China – will have to step up.” Already some analysts have pointed out that the PLAN’s role in Syrian chemical weapons destruction has been exaggerated, and is actually much smaller than other states’ contributions. This begs the question of how China will make more meaningful contributions after 2014, when navies might begin exiting the Gulf of Aden.

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According to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), Somali pirates hijacked exactly zero commercial vessels successfully in the Indian Ocean in 2013. While piracy and other non-traditional maritime threats have certainly not disappeared from the maritime commons, this represents a victory for 21st-century security cooperation. Multilateral anti-piracy forces led by the U.S. and Europe, as well as “independent” contributors such as Russia and China, achieved moderate coordination that allowed states to stretch their anti-piracy dollars further, while achieving the best results that might be expected short of addressing root causes on land.

While certainly welcomed by China and the rest of the international community, the decline of Somali piracy has consequences for China’s foreign policy. The Gulf of Aden contributions demarcate China’s irreversible entrance into global maritime security provision as a responsible power. For as long as China’s Near Seas, such as the Yellow, East and South China Seas, remain choppy, Beijing understands that it must find other ways to portray itself as a responsible maritime power. PLAN Deputy Commander Ding Yiping was quoted in a December 27, 2013 Liberation Army Daily as affirming that the PLAN has committed to a continued anti-piracy presence off Somalia through November 2014. It remains uncertain whether the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will pass a subsequent resolution extending states’ mandate to deploy anti-piracy assets in the Gulf of Aden beyond this date.

Given that China’s neighbors increasingly view its behavior as disruptive, the lack of an overseas foothold to launch contributions to international security could be costly. Since 2008, Beijing has consistently been able to counter Near Seas tensions in the Yellow, East and South China Seas with proactive contributions in other maritime regions. Admittedly, international voyages of China’s Peace Ark hospital ship, search and rescue vessel Haixun 01, and other auxiliary platforms can be increased to help offset the eventual goodwill vacuum that will result when the last PLAN warship leaves Somalia’s coast. But as Libya and Syria demonstrate, it will be difficult to substitute for China’s presence in the Gulf of Aden, which offers access to Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as the Atlantic and Indian Oceans even in the absence of Chinese overseas bases. As expectations that China will assume a larger international security role grow, emerging incentives — positive and negative – will motivate Beijing to find creative ways to get involved. The fact that in 2013 only nine pirate attacks occurred in the Gulf of Aden, as compared to 31 in the Gulf of Guinea, suggests that Beijing and other states must be contemplating the international community’s role in West African security.

Moreover, like anti-piracy escorts in the Gulf of Aden, the chemical weapons escorts continues the trend of Chinese Far Seas pragmatic cooperation amid increasingly tense relations in Asia-Pacific waters. The announcement on December 17 that China would assist with chemical weapons escorts coincided with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel labeling China’s behavior during the “Cowpens Incident” in the South China Sea as “irresponsible.”

Without a persistent overseas presence, the disconnect between China’s Near Seas and Far Seas security policies might intensify. Cao Weidong of the Naval Military Studies Research Institute – the PLAN’s strategic think tank – maintains that the PLAN’s participation in chemical weapon escorts are very similar to China’s contributions off Somalia, and these types of operations are already a “walk in the park” for China’s navy. While this may be true, the Syrian chemical weapons case demonstrates the real value of China’s anti-piracy deployments, which go far beyond actual escorts themselves. Gulf of Aden anti-piracy missions are a useful platform, but far from a permanent one. As Beijing’s international security activities grow, it will need to find reliable means of supporting and sustaining them.

While both Chinese and international observers will continue to welcome greater Chinese contributions to a myriad of 21st-century threats, Beijing will be hard-pressed to do so without overseas facilities or other forms of international footholds that can support a diverse basket of military and paramilitary operations amid a worsening Asia-Pacific security outlook.