By Quan Xiaoshu, Wuchen & Lin Jianyang (China Features)
Ji Wanli, one of China’s first batch of navy officers sent to the Gulf of Aden for an anti-piracy mission, still feels excited whenever he reads the diary written during the “blue water experience”.
“The journey was full of communications and exchanges with foreign navies. It’s new and interesting to me, so I wrote everything down,” Ji says.
On Dec. 26 last year, a Chinese three-ship fleet, consisting of destroyer Wuhan and Haikou, and the supply ship Weishanhu, set sail to the Gulf of Aden to protect passing vessels from attacks of Somali pirates.
It made headlines among international media and was widely regarded as a milestone in the transformation of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which is able to protect the country’s maritime rights in distant ocean.
"We have met warships of European Union, U.S. Combined Task Force 151, the Russian and Indian navies since we arrived in the Gulf of Aden. We sent greetings and exchanged information about fleet actions, pirates and suspicious targets and so on via e-mails and fax," Ji wrote in his diary.
During hazy days when the visibility was low, Ji and his fellow comrades would heighten vigilance, so that they could keep uninterrupted connection with the Chinese and foreign commercial vessels which they escorted.
Since commercial vessels usually have foreign sailors, the Chinese escort fleet had not only set up two high-frequency command and coordination channels, one in Chinese and the other in English, but also employed short wave, maritime satellite telephone and other means to maintain free communication with commercial vessels.
The first Chinese fleet to the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters escorted more than 100 ships and successfully rescued three foreign merchant ships, before being replaced by the second fleet earlier in April this year.
Zhang Xiaolin, a professor at the Strategic Research Institute of the Nanjing-based Navy Command College, said since the Gulf of Aden was international seawaters, international cooperation and coordination was essential during escort, which brought the PLAN's concept of security cooperation from theory into practice.
In the meantime, more exchanges would be conducive for the PLAN to learn from successful experiences with foreign navies, he said. For instance, it is worthwhile for the PLAN to learn from the French navy for its experience in hostage rescue and the employment of psychological war.
Though the Chinese navy has been sticking to the principles of non-alignment, non-confrontation and not directing against any third party in its foreign relations, it also promises to conduct cooperation with other navies in such fields as intelligence exchange and humanitarian rescue missions.
Zhu Feng, an scholar with Peking University's International Studies School, said China's effort in recent years to expand military foreign relations had become one of its major ways to build up trust, dispel suspicion and counter the so-called "China Threat" preached by some Westerners.
The PLAN's strengthened foreign relations were of great significance for China to showcase its peace and cooperation strategy, he said.
The relations were further deepened during an international fleet parade held in April in the eastern port of Qingdao, a ceremony to celebrate Chinese navy’s 60th anniversary. Twenty-one navy ships from other countries participated in the parade.
“The parade has opened an extraordinary chapter in the PLAN's foreign relations, showing its great efforts to engage the international community,” Zhang Xiaolin said.
Actually, the country started to show its friendly intention to improve cultural exchanges with the outside world by sea explorations centuries ago.
Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) court eunuch, commanded a fleet of vessels, crossed the Indian Ocean and made it to the coast of East Africa more than 600 years.
Historians called his sea expeditions from 1405 to 1433 "friendly and peaceful diplomatic journeys", as all the crew in his fleet were asked to respect local customs and promote Chinese culture in the spirit of peace and harmony wherever they landed.
However, military observers believed the Ming court sent fleets far afield of its shores more to show off its strength than to boost exchanges with other nations.
The third flotilla sent by the PLAN in July, following the path of its naval pioneers to join a global fight against piracy, is more practical in maintaining world trade exchanges and peace.
By Sept. 4, the Chinese naval convoy had escorted 555 vessels, including Chinese merchant vessels, UN grain-shipping vessels and merchant vessels from other countries, in pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast.
"China has extended its participation in international peacekeeping operations from the land to the ocean. It demonstrates the country's tradition of loving peace and assuming responsibilities," Zhang Xiaolin said.
China's naval force, established to save the country from erosion of the Western powers, have long been confined to waters near its shores to safeguard its land territory.
After Zheng He's long voyages, Chinese rulers forbade all maritime activities and cut off their relations with other nations. It was until the outbreak of the Opium War (1840-1842) that the then-ruling Qing regime became aware of the threats from the oceans, and embarked on the building of the first navy in modern China.
Since then, the Beiyang Navy of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the Navy of the Kuomintang Regime in the first half of the 20th century were both developed purely for defense.
Due to the U.S. blockade, the Korean War and conflicts with the Soviet Union, the PLA navy also kept the troops close to land from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s under the strategy of inshore defense.
To Liu Song, former commissar on the Yangtze frigate, one of the first warships of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), the escort mission of the Chinese navy across the Indian Ocean was far beyond his imagination half a century ago as the navy was weak when it was founded 60 years ago.
Chinese leader Mao Zedong spent four days on the Yangtze frigate and Luoyang frigate in 1953 on his first tour of the navy." Chairman Mao reminded us that aggression came from the sea during the Opium War (1840-1842). He called for the building of a strong navy to combat the imperialism aggression," Liu said.
Since the 1980s, the Navy has realized a strategic transformation to offshore defensive operations. It has also greatly increased friendship visits and conducted joint military drills and international humanitarian missions with foreign armies.
In November 1985, a Chinese flotilla consisting of destroyer Hefei and supply ship Fengcang visited Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. It was the PLAN's first foreign visit.
In May to September of 2002, another flotilla consisting of destroyer Qingdao and supply ship Taicang completed the PLAN's first global navigation journey and visited 10 countries.
In September 2007, two Chinese naval vessels conducted a first-ever joint exercise with British aircraft carrier Ark Royal in the Atlantic sea near the southern British port city of Portsmouth.
In March this year, the PLAN's destroyer Guangzhou took part in the 10-day "Peace 09" military drill at the Arabia Sea off the southern Pakistani port of Karachi. During the mission, the PLAN dispatched a special task force for the first time to participate in an anti-terror exercise on land. It also took home new experience in maritime anti-terror cooperation with foreign navies.
From 1985 till now, the PLAN has sent 33 fleets with more than 40 warships for friendship visits to more than 30 countries on five continents.
A long coastline and developing sea-borne trade has pushed China to have a strong blue-water presence, said Zhuang Congyong, a researcher with the Naval Command Academy (NCA) of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA).
"Nowadays, threats to China's maritime safety and development include maritime terrorism, pirates, international crime and other unconventional challenges. It is the responsibility of our armed forces to protect our sea territory and to maintain our maritime rights and interests," Zhuang said.
The White Paper on China's National Defense in 2008 issued early this year says the navy is "developing capabilities of conducting cooperation in distant waters and countering non-traditional security threats, so as to push forward the overall transformation of the service."
The White Paper says the navy comprises the submarine, surface vessel, aviation, marine corps and coastal defense wings.
Wu Shengli, commander of the Navy, said it will accelerate researching and building new-generation weapons to boost the ability to fight in regional sea wars. Aircraft and torpedoes, long-range missiles with high accuracy, submarines with superb invisibility and endurance and electronic weapons and facilities are also on the Navy's agenda.
“The ability to go deep into the ocean to conduct integrated operations is a key criterion for a strong navy. The escort operation to the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters reflects and starts the transformation of our military strategy," Zhuang said. "The Chinese navy will conduct more long-distance escort missions in the future."