(This story has been posted on The Wall Street Journal Online’s China Real Time Report blog at blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime.)
By Jeremy Page
China has sent one of its most modern warships to protect vessels extracting thousands of its citizens from Libya, in the Asian power’s first naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea and its first deployment of military hardware in a civilian evacuation mission.
The Chinese navy diverted the Xuzhou, a 4,000 ton missile frigate, from anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia and dispatched it to the Libyan coast on Thursday, according to a statement on the Chinese Defense Ministry’s web site.
The Chinese government has also sent civilian ships and aircraft to evacuate about half of the roughly 30,000 Chinese citizens Libya amid escalating violence there, in what the state-run Xinhua news agency has described as China’s biggest civilian evacuation operation. The evacuation reflects the mounting pressure on China’s government to protect the growing number of Chinese citizens living and working overseas, especially in unstable regions where China is seeking supplies of oil and other key raw materials to feed its booming economy.
The Xuzhou’s deployment also illustrates the Chinese navy’s increasing capacity to operate far beyond China’s own shores in order to protect the country’s perceived interests, including the security of its businesses and citizens.
As well as boosting the navy’s public image, the Xuzhou’s deployment could help it secure future funding, particularly for a program to develop aircraft carriers, according to Andrew Erickson and Gabe Collins of China Signpost, a website providing analysis and policy recommendations on China.
“Chinese policymakers now have a precedent for future military operations in areas where the lives and property of expatriate PRC (People’s Republic of China) citizens come under threat,” they wrote in a commentary on the deployment.
The two-year-old Xuzhou, which is armed with weapons including HHQ-16 surface-to-air missiles and carries a Z-9 helicopter, was one of three Chinese ships taking part in joint international anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden.
China’s participation in those patrols, starting in January 2009, was seen as a milestone in the country’s naval development, as its warships had not actively patrolled outside China’s own waters before, and had not visited the African coast for several centuries.
China’s navy has staged joint exercises and visited ports all around the world in recent years: Chinese warships visited Egypt, Italy and Greece last year. But they have never before launched a real operation in the Mediterranean.
India and South Korea are also sending warships to help evacuate their citizens from Libya, highlighting the growing capabilities of navies elsewhere in Asia, which has sparked fears of a regional arms race.
The U.S. and its allies in Asia, especially Japan, have repeatedly expressed concern about how China plans to use its rapidly expanding military powers and have started to boost their own arsenals and defense ties in response.
U.S. officials have been particularly alarmed by China’s imminent deployment of its first aircraft carrier, and a “carrier-killing” anti-ship ballistic missile, as well as the unveiling of its stealth fighter prototype last month.
China says its military modernization does not threaten any other country. But active-duty and retired military officers alarmed many of China’s neighbors last year by calling for Beijing to take a tougher stance on territorial disputes, especially in the East China Sea and South China Sea.
In the last month, however, Chinese officials and analysts appear to have been trying to ease those concerns by playing down the capabilities and ambitions of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, and emphasizing the importance of international cooperation.
One of China’s most hawkish military commentators, Rear Admiral Yang Yi, wrote a commentary, published Thursday, in which he praised the national military strategy paper released by the Pentagon this month (PDF).
“We should candidly tell the U.S. that the PLA has neither the capability nor the intention to challenge the U.S. for both regional and global military superiority,” Adm. Yang, a former head of strategic studies at the PLA’s National Defense University, wrote on the Chinese-language website of the Global Times newspaper. “[We] don’t have any goal to pursue regional military hegemony, and China’s sole objective of military modernization is to protect our national security and development interests.”
Adm. Yang has been a vocal critic of U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises in the Yellow Sea and warned Vietnam it would regret its decision to hold joint naval drills with the U.S. in a disputed part of the South China Sea late last year. He also warned the U.S. in 2009 to stay out of affairs between the mainland and Taiwan.