U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (L) and Chief of the General Staff of People's Liberation Army of China General Chen Bingde (R)

May 17, 2011 - Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images North America

A Reuters article (H/T James R. Holmes -see below) from last year contains an interesting quote in regards to anti-piracy strategy from General Chen Bingde, the chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army:

For counterpiracy campaigns to be effective, we should probably move beyond the ocean and crash their bases on the land….It’s important that we target not only the operators, those on the small ships or craft conducting the hijacking activities, but also the figureheads….The ransoms, the captured materials and money flow somewhere else. The pirates (on ships) … get only a small part of that.

If such a policy came to fruition it would certainly represent a big change in worldview for the PRC, bearing in mind that it was only 20 years ago that it was suspicious about the legitimacy of even UNPKOs. James R. Holmes at The Diplomat however cautions China against hastily throwing off what he admits to be a “wearisome” defensive strategy, in favour of a more offensive strategy aimed at resolving the issue of the failed Somali  state being a haven for transnational criminal operators. Needless to say the US’ own experience in Somalia, and in the counterinsurgency domain in general in the Middle East, would be instructive for any Chinese thought process around sending an expeditionary force to Somalia. Holmes argues:

Chen’s ambitious vision of completely eradicating pirate bases is more problematic. Putting a permanent end to this scourge would seemingly require Chinese soldiers or marines to go ashore – and stay there. Coastal raids would do little good. Villages could be cleared readily enough, but would they stay cleared? In all likelihood the brigands, already a dispersed lot, would simply scatter at the approach of foreign troops and return later. History has been unkind to the come-and-go approach. On the other hand, establishing a sustained presence along the coast would start to resemble a counterinsurgency campaign, with all the hardships and perils that mode of warfare entails.

The implementation of such a plan would certainly be further, and perhaps clinching, evidence of  the CCP’s formerly “Dengist” approach to foreign policy being displaced in modern China. Holmes however suggests that a circumspect China would/should give up on such a plan as, in simple terms, piracy at the current level is not just that much of a drag on China’s strategic interests to justify the expense of blood and treasure.

In the sole context of international piracy, in which Holmes is an expert, this would certainly be true. However when placed in the broader international relations context of a rising power trying to broaden its military capabilities and gain operational experience in a constrained and sensitive security environment, Chen’s statement becomes more explicable. After all China has had little significant expeditionary experience  in the last 65 (or really, 200 years) with all conflict involving Chinese troops being limited to civil wars and border disputes, with perhaps the semi-exception of the Korean war.  The PRC’s coming late into the “great power” game is likely seen as a burden in that its military development and particularly any power projection capabilities will inevitably be viewed with much scepticism. Without a legitimating “excuse” for the development of this capability then it will only add to the China threat narrative.

Indeed already the Somali piracy threat has been used by countries like Japan to expand security roles and give experience to its MSDF beyond East Asia. As we all know Japan has also set up its first post-WWII overseas base in Djibouti. The broader implication of this was certainly not lost on the Chinese, who admitted that while Japan had legitimate interests in combating piracy, also claimed that “observers say that by establishing the base, the Japanese government is also exploring how far it can go in increasing its military clout in the world.” While that might be an oversimplification, it is worth bearing in mind whether the Chinese are going to take a leaf out of the Japanese playbook in order to develop sensitive capabilities that it believes it may need in the future to protect its growing global interests.

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Corey Wallace joined Japan Security Watch in 2011. He writes on Japan security-related topics, focusing on issues and stories that may not find their way into the English language media. He also hosts the blog Sigma1 where he writes on Japanese domestic politics and broader issues in international relations. Prior to taking up a PhD Corey was a participant on the JET program (2004-2007) and on returning to New Zealand he worked at the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology from 2007-2010 as a policy adviser. Corey lectures two courses at the University of Auckland. One is on the international relations of the Asia-Pacific, which contains a significant focus on East Asia security issues. The other is a course on China's international relations. His primary academic interests before his current Japan focus were science and technology politics/policy, issues of ethnic identity, and Chinese modern history and politics. He carries over his interest in issues of identity and history into his PhD where he is looking at generationally situated concepts of national identity and their impact on foreign policy ideas in Japan.
Corey Wallace has 17 post(s) on Asia Security Watch