As The Diplomat previously reported, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy spearheaded the evacuation of both Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from Yemen over the past week. On March 29 and 30, the Weifang, a PLAN frigate, and the Weishanhu supply vessel evacuated 571 Chinese citizens from Yemen; on April 2, another frigate, the Linyi, carried 225 foreign nationals from ten different countries (mostly Pakistan) from Yemen’s Aden pot to Djibouti.
As I wrote earlier, it’s rare for China to use its military to assist in evacuation operations halfway around the world. It’s even rarer for China’s military to assist foreign citizens in the same way. In a press conference last week, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying noted that the operation was “a special action” wherein China “evacuate[d] foreign nationals stuck in dangerous zones for the first time.” According to Hua, the evacuation embodied the principles of “internationalism and humanitarianism held by the Chinese government.”
A Xinhua commentary expanded more on that last point, turning the Yemen operation into an argument in favor of China’s increasingly global military presence. “The humanitarian nature of Chinese armed forces’ overseas missions indicated that China is willing to help when it is able and ready,” the piece said. “With an able and helpful China, the world will have more resources to maneuver through disasters and crisis.”
The piece also fired back at “those who felt threatened by China’s increasing national strength.” Xinhua declared that “China, with its size, strength and population, is never a destructive force and the world has more to gain than to lose if they embrace this fact.”
Xinhua also made a point of emphasizing that China’s navy could not have helped with the evacuation if the PLAN had not already been deployed nearby, conducting anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden. “Surely it [the evacuation] is the result of an increasing presence of the Chinese navy abroad,” Xinhua wrote, noting the warships’ position “allowed them to act fast.”
A recent article from China Military Online also highlighted the role of China’s anti-piracy forces in upholding the global good. Rear Admiral Du Jingchen, the deputy commander of the PLAN, pointed out that China’s taskforces in the Gulf of Aden (19 to date, with the 20th just having set sail from Zhejiang) have carried out a number of humanitarian missions in addition to their primary anti-piracy task. While stationed in the Gulf of Adan, Du said, PLAN vessels have helped evacuate civilians from Libya and Yemen, escorted chemical weapons being removed from Syria, and provided emergency water supplies to the Maldives.
In essence, China is using the anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden, the PLAN’s showcase overseas mission, to highlight the benefits of a global military presence for China. The defense of a global PLA comes as China is inching toward making that dream a reality, particularly when it comes to China’s navy.
There have long been reports that China wants to set up overseas bases to provide logistics support for PLAN ships on long-range missions. The “string of pearls” theory, which has been around for over a decade, holds that China will seek to set up military bases throughout the Indian Ocean, particularly in states where Beijing has major economic influence. Port calls by Chinese submarines to Chinese-owned ports in Sri Lanka have only intensified speculation along these lines. Meanwhile, a report from Namibia says the Chinese government is looking to build a base at Walvis Bay, giving the PLAN a beachhead in the South Atlantic.
Christopher Yung, writing for The Diplomat earlier this year, summarized a National Defense University report which concluded that China is most likely to pursue dual-use logistics facilities. A dual-use footprint would allow PLAN vessels to engage in exactly the sort of missions Xinhua was touting: emergency evacuations, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. Such bases would also, of course, boost the ability of the PLAN to conduct more traditional military operation abroad – such as, for example, counter-terrorism operations on foreign soil (a contingency provided for by China’s new anti-terrorism draft law).
In highlighting the humanitarian missions of the PLAN, China is making its case that a global military presence is beneficial for the world. China’s direct military rivals — the U.S., India, and Japan — are unlikely to buy this argument, but it could be persuasive to the actual states where China might pursue overseas basing options.