Chinese warships - armed with special forces, guided missiles and helicopters - 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.
The three vessels - two destroyers and a supply ship - may increase worries about growing Chinese military power. The mission will also challenge China's ability to cooperate with other naval forces patrolling the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea lanes.
The Chinese ships left early Friday afternoon from a base on the southern island province of Hainan, the official Xinhua News Agency and CCTV reported. China announced it was joining the anti-piracy mission Tuesday after the U.N. Security Council authorized nations to conduct land and air attacks on pirate bases.
Pirates have made an estimated $30 million hijacking ships for ransom this year, seizing more than 40 vessels off Somalia's 1,880-mile (3,000-kilometer) coastline.
Deploying ships to the Gulf of Aden marks a significant step in the evolution of China's navy, according to a report by Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based intelligence company. The mission will be complicated, offering vital on-the-job training in refueling, resupply and repairs far from home as well as patrolling for pirates, Stratfor said.
"In the event of an accident or a run-in with pirates," Stratfor said, "would a Chinese vessel carry out repairs at sea, head to a nearby port, perhaps in Pakistan, or return to China?"
Stratfor also noted the waters will be awash with naval ships from around the world, making it essential for China to maintain effective communication with the vessels.
The Chinese "will very likely monitor the way NATO and especially U.S. warships communicate with each other and with their shipborne helicopters," the report said.
China's willingness to send ships so far from home is also the latest example of the growing power and confidence of the country's navy. In recent years, the military has been loading up on warships, planes, missiles and other weapons - a beef-up that has worried its neighbors and the U.S.
Those most concerned include the Japanese and South Koreans, who have long-standing disputes about territorial waters that occasionally flare up. China has also been locked in an uneasy stand off with the Philippines, Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations over the ownership of the potentially oil-rich Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
"For Japan and some in South Korea, this is another step in the unwelcome growth of the Chinese navy as a capable blue-water force, which has only downsides for Tokyo and Seoul," said Roy, an expert on China's military.
But he said most Southeast Asian countries may see China's involvement in the anti-piracy campaign as a positive thing. It would mean that China was using its greater military might for constructive purposes, rather than challenging the current international order.
However, the analyst added, "The Chinese deployment gets at a question the U.S. and other governments have been asking: 'Why the big Chinese military buildup when no country threatens China?' Or more bluntly, 'Why do the Chinese need a blue-water navy when the U.S. Navy already polices the world's oceans?'"
Roy said the answer is that China is unwilling to rely on the U.S. to protect China's increasingly global interests. Beijing still believes it needs to enter the field, Roy said, and that leaves open the possibility of a China-U.S. naval rivalry in the future.
China has said the mission's purpose was to protect Chinese ships and crews that have come under attack from pirates. The vessels would also be willing to share intelligence and conduct humanitarian rescue operations with other countries involved in the anti-piracy efforts, Senior Col. Huang Xueping, spokesman of the Ministry of National Defense, said Tuesday.
The two Chinese destroyers - the Haikou and Wuhan - will carry special forces, two helicopters and traditional weapons such as missiles and cannons. Huang didn't say how long the mission will last, but a Communist Party newspaper has said the ships would be away about three months.
On Thursday, a German military helicopter rescued an Egyptian ship from pirates who shot and injured a crew member while trying to board the vessel off the Somali coast, said Noel Choong of the International Maritime Bureau's piracy reporting center. The bulk carrier with 31 crew was passing through the Gulf of Aden on its way to Asia when it was chased by gun-toting pirates in a speedboat, Choong said.
The pirates are spurred by poverty in Somalia, a nation of about 8 million people that has not had a functioning government since warlords overthrew a dictator in 1991 and then turned on each other.
Countries as diverse as Britain, India, Iran, the United States, France and Germany have naval forces in the waters or on their way there. On Wednesday, Japan said it was considering joining the coalition.