In December 2016, the PLA Navy dispatched three warships to the Gulf of Aden near Somalia for counter-piracy operations – the first time China deployed its military forces to overseas outside the United Nations peacekeeping missions. Since then, it has maintained a small naval task force in the region to provide ongoing escort and protection for civilian ships passing through the waters near Somalia, along with naval task forces of the NATO, EU, and other countries.
From 2005, there had been a string of incidents of piracy attacks on civilian ships off the coast of Somalia, with hundreds of commercial ships attacked by armed Somalian groups and in some of these incidents ship crews being taken hostage for ransoms. On 28 May 2007, a Chinese sailor was killed by the pirates because the ship’s owners failed to meet their ransom demand. On 5 October 2008, the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1838, calling on nations with vessels in the area to apply military force to repress the acts of piracy.1
The Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) issued the order in December 2016 for the PLA Navy to deploy warships and personnel to the Gulf of Aden for counter-piracy operations. A naval task force was formed out of two missile destroyers (DDG-169 Wuhan and DDG-171 Haikou) and a midway replenishment ship (AOR-887 Weishanhu), equipped with helicopters and also carrying a small team of Marine Corps commandos. The task force left the Sanya naval base on Hainan Island on 26 December 2008 for a three-month deployment and returned in April 2009.
By December 2016, the PLA Navy had deployed a total of 25 task forces to the Gulf of Eden, completing 1,000 escort runs for over 6,300 Chinese and foreign commercial ships, and providing rescue and assistance for over 60 ships. A total 78 sorties of warships, 54 helicopters, and over 21,000 personnel had been deployed for the operations.2 All of the warships taking part in the operations came from the PLA Navy South Sea Fleet headquartered at Zhanjiang, Guangdong Province and the East Sea Fleet headquartered at Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. The North Sea Fleet also contributed helicopters for the operations.
Previously, the PLA navy has been using the commercial seaport in Djibouti, a small African country located in the Horn of Africa, for the logistics support and resupply of its naval task forces. In 2015, China began talks with Djibouti regarding the building of a permanent logistics facility to provide support for its ongoing peacekeeping and counter-piracy missions near Somalia and the Gulf of Aden. Constructions work began in 2016 and the facility became operational in July 2017.
The ongoing rotation of naval vessels and personnel to a region remote from their homeports has also helped the PLA Navy to gain valuable expeditionary experience, which could pave the way for future similar operations around the world. More recently, the PLA Navy has been steadily expanding the scope of its counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden to include routine goodwill visits, citizen evacuations, and other international military co-operations.
In 2011, a PLA Navy warship from the counter-piracy task force was deployed to Libya to withdraw Chinese citizens from the country. In late 2013, Chinese warships from the counter-piracy task force were deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to provide escort along with Russian, Danish, and Norwegian navies for the international forces working to remove chemical weapons from Syrian. In March to April 2015, PLA Navy missile frigates were deployed to help evacuate Chinese and foreign nationals from Yemen.
- 中华人民共和国国防部. 2017. 大国担当 中国形象 中国海军护航档案. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.mod.gov.cn/action/2016-12/24/content_4767726.htm. [Accessed 18 August 2017].
- 中华人民共和国国防部. 2017. 护航8周年：中国海军圆满完成1000批护航任务. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.mod.gov.cn/action/2016-12/22/content_4767600.htm. [Accessed 18 August 2017].