May 23,2009

The US Should Applaud, Not Fear, Chinese Destroyers in the Horn of Africa

By Thomas Wilkins

Since the Somali pirates are a "common enemy for the US and China, Americans should not over react to Chinese destroyers in the Horn of Africa, but should applaud," said Lieutenant Justin Mikolay, Instructor of International Relations and National Security Policy at the US Naval Academy during a "China in Africa" conference sponsored by The Jamestown Foundation In Washington, DC this week. 

The deployment of the Chinese Navy in the Horn of Africa does not represent a power grab in Africa but merely reflects China's cooperation with a multinational constellation of naval vessels in order to combat piracy.  "To those who remain wary of Chinese ambitions, one important distinction should remain clear: China joined the international community to challenge piracy. It did not join the counter-piracy effort to challenge the international community," he said.

China's naval deployment also reflects China's cooperation with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1851 which authorizes hot pursuit of piracy at sea.  

China has been cautious in reviving naval ties in the Pacific with the US because of US military supplies to Taipei. However, counter-piracy operations gave birth to unique opportunities for military cooperation between the two countries. Lieutenant Mikolay spoke to and gave printed documents to after his presentation on the condition that his remarks be noted as solely his own and not representing US Government policy.     

The deployment of Chinese naval vessels in pursuit of Somali pirates "signals an important step in the evolution of the People's Liberation Army Navy" and frames policy discussions by US policy analysts  around three points of view,  said Lieutenant Mikolay.  

The first point of view portrays China as a "reasonable stakeholder," that is, it supports counter-piracy because an estimated one fifth of its 1,265 cargo ships encountered piracy last year in Somali waters. Piracy is therefore a threat to shipping trade and safety on the seas. The "reasonable stakeholder" view is championed by Admiral Timothy Keating, Commander, and US Pacific Command. The Admiral is on record for saying the Chinese deployment into the Horn of Africa "augurs well for increased cooperation and collaboration between the Chinese military forces and U.S. forces."

The second view is that China is acting as a "balancer in a vacuum" as today's presence is only the third  Chinese deployment in the Indian Ocean in more than 600 years since Emperor Yongle sent Admiral Zheng  and 27,000 men as far as Mombasa, Mecca and Mogadishu in order to impose imperial control over trade.

The third view portrays China's motivation as using the piracy as a smoke screen for its ambition of a "rising naval power," evidenced by  new work orders in shipyards for aircraft carriers, Air Defense Destroyers, and nuclear submarines.

Additional evidence supporting the "rising naval power" view comes from China's constructing a naval port in Hambantota. Sri Lanka to be used as a refueling and docking station for its navy as it patrols the Indian Ocean and protects China's supplies of Saudi oil. China is significantly dependent on petroleum deliveries through the Gulf of Aden and Strait of Hormuz. The Sri Lanka port is ten miles from one of the world's busiest shipping lanes and carries a $1 billion cost estimate.  China says that Hambantota is a commercial venture, but some policy analysts view it as a "string of pearls" strategy with connections to China's building or upgrading ports at Gwadar, Pakistan, Chittagong, Bangladesh and Sittwe, Burma.

Defending those supplies supports China's plans for a bigger navy, currently totaling more than 300 ships. China's navy could surpass the US as the world's largest. The "rising naval power" thesis involves not just the US but also India as it too is highly dependent on Saudi oil. India is also building a larger navy viewed jealously by Chinese planners who witnessed India’s purchase of  an aircraft carrier from the British Royal Navy, renaming it  the I.N.S. Viraat.

Regarding the contrast between self defensive tactics used by Chinese ships but not used by US ships, the crew of the Chinese tanker Zhenhua 4 held off a pirate attack by improvising construction of Molotov cocktails. None of the Chinese crew was harmed when attacked in December.

"We should put a team of triggers-pullers" on the US ships, said prior to the conference Representative Gene Taylor, Chairman of the Sea Power Subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee, prior to the conference.

Due to warnings from the National Intelligence Service and Defense Security Command in Korea, Somali pirates may have acquired Stinger anti-air missiles from Al-Qaida. South Korea’s naval deployment in the Horn of Africa has been place on high alert due to possible attacks using U.S. surface-to-air guided missiles against helicopters which lack sensor systems thwarting Stinger-like missiles.  Offensive weapons against naval forces will fundamentally change piracy tactics.

Why did China join the anti-pirate efforts, asked Lieutenant Mikolay? There is an intangible benefit, namely credibility, and protecting their ships is the tangible benefit. He places himself in the "reasonable stakeholder" camp and thinks the US should not exaggerate the deployment's significance.

Will the Chinese Navy be at parity with the US Navy in 15 years? This is the question he asks his students when they conclude his courses. "Students expect to witness a major Chinese maritime presence later in their careers, but they struggle to explain how such a transformation could materialize. They mention that China has dispatched more UN peacekeepers than any permanent member of the Security Council (more than 11,000 on 18 UN missions). But students have difficulty linking this to naval power. This is because until December 2008 no maritime equivalent existed. It does now-and it could be the first of many blue-water [with an expanded range] patrols that may one day familiarize our students with their Chinese counterparts via bridge-to-bridge radio," reasoned Lieutenant Mikolay in his printed publication on this subject, given to He is the "smartest man I know. You could tell he was interested in what he taught," said one of his students at Rate My Professors.

At graduation ceremonies today at The United States Naval Academy, President Obama praised the American Navy for its rescue mission of an unarmed American cargo ship captain held captive by Somali pirates.  In the audience was his presidential challenger Senator John McCain, a former naval academy graduate himself, whose son was one of the 1,036 graduates.




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