- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2008

GUANGZHOU, China | Chinese warships set sail Friday for anti-piracy duty off Somalia, the first time the communist nation has sent ships on a mission that could involve fighting so far beyond its territorial waters.

Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said the U.S. welcomed China’s move.

The U.S. military has been escorting cargo ships in the region along with India, Russia and the European Union. But analysts predicted the Chinese intervention could be troubling to some Asian nations who might see it as a sign of the Chinese military becoming more aggressive.

The convoy that set sail from southern Hainan on Friday included a supply ship and two destroyers - armed with guided missiles, special forces and two helicopters. China announced Tuesday it was joining the anti-piracy mission after the U.N. Security Council authorized nations to conduct land and air attacks on pirate bases.

Pirates working out of Somalia have made an estimated $30 million this year, seizing more than 40 vessels off the country’s 1,880-mile coastline.

For several decades, China has kept a massive army focused on protecting its land borders, while the country’s navy was relatively weak. But in recent years, China concluded that a stronger navy was needed to protect its increasingly vital sea shipments of oil, raw materials and other goods.

China has been rapidly beefing up its navy with new destroyers, submarines and missiles. Naval officers have even been talking about building an aircraft carrier that could help the navy become a “blue-water” force capable of operating far from home.

Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii, said the naval buildup and the mission to the Gulf of Aden are the latest signs that China is no longer willing to rely on the U.S. or other foreign navies to protect its increasingly global interests.

“China has not been dissuaded from entering the field,” Mr. Roy said. “That leaves open the possibility of a China-U.S. naval rivalry in the future.”

Mr. Roy predicted that China’s move would alarm Japan and some in South Korea because both countries have long-standing territorial disputes with China. But he said most Southeast Asian countries may see China’s involvement in the anti-piracy campaign as positive. It would mean that China was using its greater military might for constructive purposes, rather than challenging the current international order.

China’s military has not said how long the mission would last, but the state-run China Daily newspaper recently reported that the ships would be gone for about three months. The paper said about 20 percent of the 1,265 Chinese ships passing through the Somali area have come under attack this year.

Deploying ships to the area has helped stoke national pride among Chinese who feel their increasingly wealthy nation should be playing a bigger role in world affairs.

The front page of the Southern Metropolis Daily - one of southern China’s most popular newspapers - had a photo Friday of a special forces member posing with his finger on the trigger of an assault rifle armed with a grenade launcher. A headline read, “They won’t rule out a direct conflict with pirates.”

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