By Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri
Beijing, in the recent times, has taken great pains to convince the international community about its earnestness towards ‘Peaceful Development’. In the white paper on Chinese ‘Peaceful Development’ released on 6 September 2011, it was mentioned that ‘Peaceful Development’ is a strategic choice voluntarily exercised by China, and that Beijing hoped that the world would have confidence in the sincerity of the Chinese endeavour. The Chinese State Councillor, Dai Bingguo, also stated in an article released in the UK on 25 September 2011that the Chinese declaration of ‘Peaceful Development’ was “not merely empty talk.” He further exhorted the world to welcome rather than obstruct it. So where does the Chinese Navy fit into all of this?
Navies the world over, by the very nature of their operational role and additional characteristics of institutional flexibility, manoeuvrability, adaptability and reach are ideally suited to be appropriate instruments of their States’ foreign policy. There are historic precedents of the British and Americans having continually utilized their naval power in the furtherance of their respective countries’ political objectives. The PLA Navy or for that matter, any navy of consequence therefore, may be deemed to follow the same route to achieving major power status.
It is evident that in the context of the current world order, the occasions and opportunities for using navies in their conventional role as instruments of coercive diplomacy are few and far between. However there are numerous opportunities to be engaged in non-traditional activities which project the benign face of the State while justifying the capacity building, force modernization and infrastructure upgrade to a certain extent.
China has thus found a near justifiable way of modernizing its Defence Forces, particularly its Navy by emphasizing on the importance of non-traditional roles for its forces. The 2008 ‘White Paper on China’s National Defence’ enunciated for the first time that China now sees the Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW) as an important form of applying military force. The PLA Navy has accordingly widened its scope of operations to include “…integrated offshore operations in distant waters …” The uninterrupted anti-Piracy patrols mounted by the PLA Navy ships since December 2008 in the Gulf of Aden and off Somali coast, wherein nine task Forces have been deployed till date for escort duties, is the most notable instance of MOOTW.
There have been many positive benefits for the PLA Navy which are either associated with or complement the presence of its ships in the Gulf of Aden. The Chinese warships have visited various Indian Ocean littoral countries including India and Pakistan, while transiting these waters for anti-piracy mission. The PLA Navy Ships even ventured into the Mediterranean and visited ports in Egypt, Italy and Greece during August 2010. These ships, while on deployment, have regularly visited ports in Oman, UAE, Yemen and Djibouti, either for operational turn around, rest and recreation or to evade bad weather. The frigate ‘Xuzhou’ was diverted from the anti-piracy task to the Libyan coast in end February 2011 to assist in the withdrawal of Chinese citizens from the crisis struck Libya.
The PLA Navy hospital ship Peace Ark sailed for the Indian Ocean from China on 31 August 2010 on a 90 day ‘Mission Harmony-2010’. The ship operated in the Gulf of Aden for some time with the sixth task force and then called on ports in Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, Seychelles and Bangladesh. The ship’s medical teams provided free health services, diagnostics and treatment to the local public and military personnel. This achieved much more international mileage for China in spreading the message of ‘Peaceful Development’ than what mere words on White Papers and rhetorical statements from back home could do.
China having realized the immense benefit of presenting the benevolent facet of its Navy towards its larger image building exercise sailed the Peace Ark hospital ship again in September 2011 on a long voyage to the Latin American countries of Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa. This ‘Mission Harmony 2011’ will keep the ship at sea for more than 100 days over a distance of 23,500 nautical miles. The PLA senior Officer in charge of the mission emphasized that “the mission was of great significance in publicizing the ideas of ‘Harmonious World’ and ‘Harmonious Ocean’, demonstrate China’s friendly relations between the Latin American countries, and highlight the PLA’s image as a peaceful and a civilized force. The words highlighted in the above statement need to be taken due note of by the international community.
There are vital lessons to be learnt from the above Chinese approach of naval capacity building by highlighting the relevance of non-traditional role of this service. The investment of so much national effort, resources and international relations capital will really stand China in good stead in the long run, as the PLA Navy develops strong sea legs in a multinational operating environment and gains vital lessons in inter-operability. It can thus be inferred that China considers this course of action as a win-win situation – one of continuing modernization, but with a benign pretence.
The views expressed are solely of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Indian Navy or the National Maritime Foundation.
Kamlesh Kumar Agnihotri
Research Fellow, China Cell, National Maritime Foundation
email: [email protected]