China’s deployment of the Jiangkai-II class missile frigate Xuzhou to the coast of Libya on a special escort mission to protect ships carrying Chinese citizens from Libya to safety across the Mediterranean Sea has been applauded worldwide. The convoys also used merchant airplanes, ships chartered from China’s state run air and shipping firms, utilized local buses and even chartered Greek merchant vessels to evacuate around 30,000 Chinese from Libya.
The Xuzhou mission is an example of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) implementing its new mission to maintain Chinese overseas interests. American naval historian Kenneth Hagan found that the US utilized warships in the late 19th Century to protect and evacuate US traders and citizens around the globe, particularly in Africa, and the Middle and Far East. Even though the US Navy at that time was too weak to match the Chilean navy, the US desperately refitted old wooden warships to carry out protection and evacuation missions. Other western powers have adopted similar strategies over time. Germany, for example, dispatched three destroyers to evacuate its citizens trapped in Libya.
China’s Libya mission is a milestone for the PLA Navy. Historically, PLAN conducted its missions from inshore defensive bases from the 1950s to the 1970s, and offshore defensive operations from the 1980s to 1990s. In the new century, the PLA Navy has gradually extended its capacity and capabilities to operate in distant waters. While other missions, including the anti-piracy action in the Gulf of Aden, involved military tasks, this time it was different. The frigate Xuzhou was used to help evacuate Chinese citizens from an unexpected chaotic overseas situation, specifically from a sovereign country.
The action has upgraded and expanded the navy’s mission to a new level in line with President Hu’s emphasis for it to be prepared for contingencies in distantregions to protect China’s national interests. This is not simply a naval mission but more importantly is a rising power’s strategy to use military assets to respond to its citizens’ needs. It serves to demonstrate how an independent country is confident enough in its capacity to protect its nationals overseas, action which also builds a positive image.
It is important to note that the PLA naval ship was on a mission to solve a humanitarian crisis and not a ploy by China to wield political and military influence in the Middle East. China does not want to exercise its military muscle because the military presence in that region traditionally belongs to the West and the US Navy dominates. China seeks to maintain good relationships with Middle East and Arabian countries in areas of trade and the economy. For the forseeable future China’s strategic interest will be contained to energy supplies from the region, including Libya. It does not have political or military motives because China’s core naval strategy focuses on the Asia Pacific region. The Xuzhou’s mission also demonstrates that one of the prime Chinese Navy roles is to focus on humanitarian tasks. Undoubtedly, PLAN has upgraded the levels to which China puts its people first but it also extended a hand to others in need of help. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the evacuation operation conducted in a violent area also included citizens of other countries. American scholar Dr Andrew Erickson suggests that as the Chinese navy now has some operational ability to rescue people in distant ports, it is timely for China and the US to consider cooperation against non-traditional security threats at sea. Surely, with US-China military relations resumed, we have a good opportunity for both countries to sit at the table to explore ways to better coordinate bilateral and multilateral military cooperation.
Cai Penghong is Senior Fellow at Institute for Asia Pacific Studies, Director of APEC Research Center, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.