Every wave has its genesis some distance from shore. In this regard, China’s historic anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden since 2008 have offered governments, researchers and pundits a rare window into Beijing’s nascent global maritime strategy. This study is one of the first attempts to comprehensively document and clarify the precise nature of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN)’s maritime anti-piracy experience. It begins with an analysis of the internal drivers behind Beijing’s turn to taking on piracy beginning nearly a decade ago. Through a thorough reading of official and academic Chinese- and English- language sources, we explore geostrategic, domestic and international economic, and civilian and military institutional dynamics that drove China’s initial decision to contribute to anti-piracy off the coast of Somalia.
The book then inspects the nature and scope of the PLAN’s anti-piracy efforts, extensively cataloguing more than a score of anti-piracy escort flotillas in terms of the types of ships used, the identities of ship commanders and political leaders, foreign ports called upon, days at sea, and various other metrics. This allows us to track the operational evolution of PLAN anti-piracy operations over time, both with regard to Chinese naval and logistical lessons learned as well as trends in China’s naval diplomatic efforts attached to its anti-piracy mission.
Finally, we take stock of the broader implications of Beijing’s anti-piracy operations and find reason for measured optimism with regard to China’s role in future global maritime governance. While Beijing remains embroiled in testy military and political standoffs in East Asian waters, the atmosphere further afield is ripe for greater Chinese collaboration with the United States and other important maritime actors. If anything, China’s naval behavior further afield reflected by its anti-piracy missions remains relatively cautious and conservative, and other stakeholders would benefit from even deeper Chinese contributions in the future.
Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor in the Strategic Research Department at the U.S. Naval War College and a founding member of the department’s China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI).
Austin Strange is a researcher at the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) of the U.S. Naval War College and a research associate at AidData.