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China, Somalia: Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
[Analysis] China's anti-piracy mission a front for broader agenda?
Bright B. Simons (baronsimon)     Print Article 
Published 2008-12-20 12:22 (KST)   
China's He Yafei, second in command of the Asian Giant's diplomatic corps, told the United Nations Security Council at a December 16th session on the Somali piracy crisis that Beijing may authorize an expeditionary naval force to the Gulf of Aden.

Two issues arise from this statement for observers of China's foreign policy.

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Firstly, it provides another piece in the puzzle of China's blue water naval ambitions, by affirming the much suspected link between seafaring commerce and open ocean warfare in the minds of Admiral Liu Huaqing's disciples at the top of the PLAN (People's Liberation Army's Navy).

Secondly, it projects Africa into the heart of China's geopolitical ambitions by offering the possibility that the emergent world power might use the continent as a sounding board for the much anticipated blue water strategy.

The second point is much vindicated in the context of the historical situation in the Straits of Malacca, where China's participation in regional anti-piracy efforts has been less than aggressive. Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, and also Japan, whose trade is highly dependent on quietude in the Straits, have constantly had to look up to the USA for strategic backup in the event things get out of hand.

So, then, the question on everybody's lips is: given the relative sanguinity China has shown about threats in its own backyard, why is the PLAN pushing the pliant Foreign Service into a blue water scheme off the shores of Africa?

To attempt to answer that question, one must first explore into a bit more detail the concept of blue-water geopolitics.

Not many countries can effectively, like the US of today and the USSR of yesterday, circulate battle stations around the planet by relying on a Navy with truly global reach.

The United States can at a moment notice dispatch an 'Aircraft Carrier Group' to nearly any naval theater anywhere on the planet in a few days or weeks at most. The group will usually consist of the Aircraft carrier itself, a floating hangar cum runway from which some 100 fighter jets may be maintained and supplied in a continuous aerial tactical scenario, and a couple of frigates and destroyers backed by amphibious special force units and perhaps a splattering of submarines.

Frigates and destroyers are great for protecting and supplying expeditionary forces as well as for pummeling the coastlines of enemy states. Like all battle cruisers, a few ballistic missiles in the mix make these perfect launching pads for broad-front attacks as well as for surgical maneuvers, involving amphibious vessels and tactical squadrons.

Simply put, if China wants to be in a position where it can clamp down on a full-blown civil war in the Sudan, for instance, and prevents such from imperiling its energy security interests it will need a blue water navy.

In the hypothetical scenario above, Chinese Marines could be dispatched in helicopters launched off destroyers, while Carrier-catapulted jetfighters provide tactical superiority, and AWACs coordinated from the Carrier mothership and the Djibouti listening post ensure that renegade generals in Khartoum do not provide any intelligence advantage to meddling regional powers like Uganda.

But in perfecting a blue water strategy for Africa, China will be perfecting a blue water strategy for its other medium-term Global strategic interests as well, in the pacific rim above all, in Central Asia, and perhaps even in Latin America and the Middle East.

Therefore while it will be over-cynical to dismiss China's concerns about Somalian piracy as a front for long-desired naval experimentation in her African sphere, it will be analytically imprudent to underemphasize the opportunity the situation offers for bold Chinese forays into Mari Incognita.

As they say: the devil is in the detail.

©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Bright B. Simons

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