GUANGZHOU, China – Chinese warships headed toward Somali waters Friday to combat piracy, the first time the communist country has sent ships on a mission that could involve fighting so far beyond its territorial waters.
The deployment to the Gulf of Aden, which has been plagued by increasingly bold pirate attacks in recent months, marks a major step in the navy's evolution from mostly guarding China's coasts to patrolling waters far from home.
The move was welcomed by the U.S. military, which 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 naval force that set sail from southern Hainan on Friday afternoon included a supply ship and two destroyers — armed with guided missiles, special forces and two helicopters. 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 working out of Somalia have made an estimated $30 million this year, seizing more than 40 vessels off the country's 1,880-mile (3,000-kilometer) coastline. Most of the attacks have occurred in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
Deploying ships to the area 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."
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, as China became more deeply involved in the global economy, it 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 — a fleet 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 Somalia 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," Roy said. "That leaves open the possibility of a China-U.S. naval rivalry in the future."
Roy predicted 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 a positive thing. It would mean that China was using its greater military might for constructive purposes, rather than challenging the current international order.
India, another longtime rival of China, would likely welcome the Chinese naval presence off Somalia for the short term, said C. Uday Bhaskar, a former naval commander and retired director of India's Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses. He doubted it would upset the strategic balance.
"If it is working for the common good, then I think India will welcome it," he said.
China's military has not said how long the mission would last, but the state-run China Daily newspaper recently reported 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.
The mission will likely offer Chinese sailors invaluable on-the-job training, according to Stratfor, an Austin, Texas-based intelligence company. The mission will be complex, with crews having to do refueling, resupply and repairs far from home amid the constant threat of pirate attacks.
The waters will also be crowded with naval ships from around the world, testing the Chinese ships' abilities to communicate effectively with other vessels in a common mission that has little central organization.
The Chinese will very likely monitor the way foreign forces, "especially U.S. warships, communicate with each other and with their shipborne helicopters," the Stratfor report said.
A NATO task force to the Gulf of Aden was recently replaced by a European Union flotilla with four to six ships patrolling the area.
About a dozen other warships, including U.S., German, and Danish ships, are in the region as part of a separate international flotilla based in Bahrain and engaged in anti-terrorism operations. Several individual nations, including Saudi Arabia, Russia, Malaysia and India, also have vessels in the Gulf of Aden.
The China Daily on Friday quoted Rear Adm. Du Jingchen, the mission's chief commander, as saying a total of 1,000 crew members will be on the three Chinese ships.
"We could encounter unforeseen situations," Du was quoted as saying. "But we are prepared for them."