The crew of the Wenzhou, a vessel of the fourth escort squad, wave goodbye to the crew of the Xuzhou, which sets sail for home after finishing its mission. Photo: Courtesy of Donghai Fleet
It has now been four full years since the Chinese Navy sent its first escort squad to the high seas. Having evolved from maritime rookies to confident sea dogs, the naval forces have been accumulating experience and winning recognition from both home and abroad, though challenges such as a dearth of supply depots still linger.
On the noon of March 2010, Weishanhu, a supply ship of China's fifth naval escort squad dispatched to the Gulf of Aden, spotted four yachts heading toward it while escorting Chinese merchant ship Zhenhua-9.
The ship sounded its level one combat alert, with sailors of the naval convoy force immediately coming up on deck. Soon, more than 130 suspected pirate yachts appeared, with three to five people aboard each.
Four yachts equipped with ladders chased the ship from the rear, forcing Weishanhu to fire stun grenades and flash bombs as warnings. However, the yachts still followed, coming to within a kilometer of the vessel.
The captain grew increasingly concerned and ordered heavy machine guns to be run out and fired at the pirates, churning up the waves around the yachts. Finally, the pursuers broke off the chase and fled, marking another successful escort mission for the fleet.
Over the past four years, China has dispatched 13 batches of 34 warships to engage in escort missions in the busy sea lane, successfully handling numerous hijack attempts on pirates for both Chinese and foreign ships.
NATO Maritime Command told the Global Times that acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean are now at their lowest point since 2008, though the issue clearly remains an ongoing concern.
According to the Chinese navy, an average of nearly 2,000 Chinese merchant vessels sail through the piracy-laden Gulf of Aden every year. Besides, about 80 percent of merchant ships sailing through the area are either Chinese ships or foreign ships with Chinese cargo and crew.
Against this backdrop, China's first escort squad, made up of three warships, set sail from the port of Sanya, Hainan Province, for the Gulf of Aden on December 26, 2008.
Since then, China's three fleets have taken turns sending warships and troops to perform the missions, with each deployed for around four months and involving some 800 men.
Pan Zhiqiang, a deputy division commander from the Donghai Fleet who took part in four escort missions between 2009 and 2011, said as the country's overseas investments expand, a strong naval force is needed to safeguard national interests and the safety of Chinese civilians across the world. "One of the requirements is the protection of our investments and strategic transportation channels. The escort missions are toward these ends," he noted.
The missions also proved effective in dealing with an unanticipated crisis.
In February 2011, unrest in Libya took a toll on Chinese projects and business in the country. On February 22, 2011, the central government announced the evacuation of Chinese nationals.
Wei Jianhua, director of the political department of a division under the Donghai Fleet, was in the Gulf of Aden at the time on the seventh escort mission. He said that officers in the flotilla discussed the possibility of joining the evacuation operation, given their proximity to North Africa.
On February 24, 2011, the flotilla received the order to sail to the waters off Libya on the Chinese military's first-ever overseas evacuation mission.
It took a week for the flotilla to reach the area before escorting the last batch of evacuees on a Greek liner. "If we hadn't been on an escort mission in the Gulf of Aden, it would have taken at least three weeks for us to get there from a Chinese port," said Wei.
100 percent success rate
Chinese naval forces have insisted on escorting merchant ships along their entire route through the navy's assigned waters, ensuring a 100 percent success rate for escort missions by the Chinese fleet.
As of early November, China's escort squads had engaged in escort missions for 4,901 vessels in 515 sorties, more than half of which were foreign vessels.
The naval squad designated two points in the Gulf of Aden, 600 nautical miles apart, delineating its escort zone, and taking two to three days to travel between.
The Chinese naval force would post its convoy schedule on a secure Internet-based system named Mercury, allowing merchant ships to apply to join the convoy. It also sends squads of marine troops and medical staff to merchant ships at their request.
Hans Tino Hansen, CEO of Denmark-based company Risk Intelligence, told the Global Times there is no doubt that the Chinese navy has been playing an important role. "It has protected not only Chinese-flagged vessels but also ships under other flags," he said.
"No matter which country or region they come from, as long as they apply for our escort, we will put their safety as the top priority," said Feng Fasong, former political commissar of missile frigate Ma'anshan who participated in the fourth and eighth escort missions. "As a result, many foreign ships join us."
In addition to merchant ships, the naval force has also escorted World Food Program aid ships, contributing to humanitarian causes.
Vice Admiral Christian Canova of the French Navy, who is also deputy commander of NATO Maritime Command, told the Global Times that China has made "a valuable tactical contribution."
Kids from Hong Kong wave flags to see off the visiting Chinese Navy fleet. Photo: Courtesy of Donghai Fleet
The success of the escort missions didn't come easy.
"By sailing out of our coastal waters, the operation in the Indian Ocean serves as a live drill for us," Tang Gusheng, political commissar of landing ship Kunlunshan under the Nanhai Fleet, told the Global Times.
The key to intercepting a pirate attack is timing, as pirates can seize a ship in as quickly as 15 minutes. Wei said after more than 1,000 tests, the navy managed to shorten decision time to 10 seconds and anti-piracy deployments to two minutes.
In addition to frequent disturbances by pirates, the complex maritime conditions, secluded environment on the ships and the long voyage all affected the troops' physical condition.
Frigate Yantai under the Beihai Fleet sailed more than 42,000 nautical miles, twice the circumference of the Earth, during its 200-day mission.
Setting sail in a rush, the first naval squad had to travel for about 140 days without docking at port due to a lack of coordination with foreign entities. Some sailors aboard the ship also developed problems linked to homesickness and poor relations with other troops.
To solve the problem, the navy introduced psychological screening in choosing sailors for the operation and brought psychiatrists aboard.
Drawing lessons from the first mission, the navy decided to allow each ship to stop at a foreign port once a month, procuring supplies and giving the sailors three to five days to rest. The port of Djibouti and Oman's Salalah port became frequent stops.
China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company (COSCO) West Africa Ltd became an agent for the naval force, helping it with supplies of vegetables, fuel and spare parts as well as customs procedures.
However, Jin Decai, a deputy chief of staff under a division of the Donghai Fleet, told the Global Times that the Chinese navy still lacks international partners in its voyages compared with the US and European countries.
Cooperation and competition
On the high seas, encounters with foreign naval ships are like running into neighbors. Although at first hindered by a lack of experience in dealing with foreign counterparts and relatively cumbersome approval procedures, the navy gradually became more confident in international exchanges and cooperation.
"At first, when sailors on foreign warships greeted us, we were so shy that sometimes we pretended not to have heard them," Cai Qing, deputy captain of Yantai, told the Global Times. "We gradually realized the importance of exchanges."
Gradually, various ice-breaking activities were organized such as a friendly soccer match between the Chinese and British navies. Kunlunshan once also held a buffet reception on its deck while docked in Djibouti, inviting foreign naval officers aboard.
Working-level exchanges are also frequent, with the navies sharing intelligence, experiences and information about their deployments, and commanders paying visits to each other's ships. At the beginning, such exchanges were held mainly between China and its traditional partners, but later expanded to nearly all the navies involved.
In addition to joint counter-piracy drills with Russia, Pakistan and South Korea, the Chinese naval vessels conducted the first such exercise with their US counterparts in the Gulf of Aden in September.
Beyond cooperation, the Indian Ocean is also a venue for navies to get firsthand knowledge about their counterparts.
Wei told the Global Times that during a rescue of a Chinese merchant ship in 2010, he spotted a US vessel floating in the waters 16 nautical miles away, monitoring their operation. "After we brought the situation under control, it radioed us and commended us," said Wei.
Comparing its operation with those of foreign navies also helped the Chinese navy learn about its shortfalls.
Pan Chunming, a deputy director of political department under a division of the Nanhai Fleet, is particularly concerned about the difficulties in securing supplies at foreign ports.
"Once we coordinated with a foreign port to berth for three days. However, the port later only allowed us to stay for one day, because a Japanese ship was coming," he told the Global Times.
This goes back to other countries having had a presence in the area for much longer. Recently, Japan set up its first overseas base in Djibouti for the Marine Self-Defense Force's anti-piracy mission.
Pan Zhiqiang with the Donghai Fleet had similar concerns. "China has invested a large amount of money in Djibouti, and helped the country build its infrastructure. However, our influence over the country cannot compete with that of Japan," he sighed, adding that "maybe it's time to adjust our strategy to reverse the passive position."