Chinese Navy Sails to Another First Off Somalia

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March 30, 2011

A Chinese warship has completed its first escort of a World Food Program shipment along the pirate-infested coast of Somalia in another milestone for the Chinese military as it tries to enhance its operational experience â ” and its international image. The missile frigate “Ma’anshan” — which carries a team of special forces troops — escorted the WFP vessel Amina between the Somali ports of Berbera and Bossasso from March 22 to 25, according to a statement from EU naval forces in the region.

“This is evidence of good co-ordination and co-operation with one of the many partners in the fight against piracy,” said the statement. Before China volunteered, the EU had been appealing for some time for other nations to help escort the WFP shipments.

The mission is the latest evidence of China’s willingness to exercise its newfound capability to project naval power far beyond its own shores, both to protect its national interests and to improve relations with other nations concerned about its rapid rise as a global military power.

China joined international anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden in December 2008, marking the first time its modern warships had actively patrolled outside its own territorial waters, and the first time any Chinese warship had visited Africa since the 15th Century.

Last month, the Chinese navy diverted one of those ships to help guard vessels rescuing more than 30,000 Chinese citizens from Libya in China’s first ever naval operation in the Mediterranean Sea.

The WFP escort mission represents a breakthrough of sorts for the Chinese navy as it involves coming much closer to Somalia’s lawless coast, increasing the risk of military exchanges within the country’s territorial waters.|| China has long adhered to a policy of non-intervention in other countries’ internal affairs, and has not been engaged in open conflict with another nation since a brief war with Vietnam in 1979.

But the country is now trying to balance that with the need to protect its own citizens overseas, as well as its key shipping routes, and its economic interests in unstable foreign countries where it is seeking oil and other key natural resources.

The 4,000-ton “Ma’anshan,” commissioned in 2005, is a Type 054 frigate equipped with a Z-9 helicopter and weapons including YJ-83 sea-skimming anti-ship cruise missiles and HQ-7 surface-to-air missiles.

Like the “Xuzhou,” which took part in the retrieval operation in Libya, the “Ma’anshan” carries a team of several special forces soldiers.

The “Xuzhou” and another missile frigate, the “Zhoushan”, have been visiting Tanzania for the last five days on the first leg of a tour of three African countries, according the Ministry of Defense. (The website of the People’s Daily newspaper has published photographs of Chinese special forces training their Tanzanian counterparts.)

China’s Defense Ministry also confirmed that the WFP escort mission had taken place, without providing further details of the operation. It did, however, say in a faxed statement that China was willing to take part in more bilateral or multilateral joint operations to protect ships in the region in accordance with relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions.

The ministry said that up until February 21, Chinese warships in the Gulf of Aden had rescued nine Chinese and foreign ships that had been hijacked by pirates, and protected 33 others from attempted raids.

It also said that Chinese warships in the area were exchanging intelligence with other countries and organizations operating there, and were communicating using the Mercury secure Internet-based system set up by the British in 2009.

China surprised many other countries by offering to help EU naval forces with the WFP escort missions last year, according to diplomats in Beijing.

The two sides have been exchanging information daily since the commanders of Chinese and EU naval forces in the area met on board the Spanish Flagship “Canarias” on 15th February.

— Jeremy Page

(c) 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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