The most controversial naval issue of the post-Cold War era has been whether or not China is planning to procure aircraft carriers. In late December the senior national defense spokesman, Huang Xueping, declared that China is "seriously" considering adding an aircraft carrier to its navy.
While this may be the most definitive statement to date by a Chinese official, more significant was the Chinese Navy's decision this past fall when 50 naval officers began a pilot training program at the Dalian Naval Academy to provide a cadre of carrier-based aviators.
Thus, speculation about a future Chinese carrier force continues albeit still without any public indications of whether such ships would be constructed in China or possibly purchased from a foreign source, in particular Ukraine, which contains the Black Sea Shipyard in Nikolayev. That yard produced all Soviet-era aircraft carriers. Also, no definitive time table has been put forward by any Chinese officials.
And, much more significant from a viewpoint of the future of China's Navy, on 26 December a three-ship task force departed Sanya in Hainan Province for operations off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden to help deter pirate attacks on international merchant shipping. Although Chinese warships have carried out long-range visits to other countries, those could not be considered operational missions.
(The last time that China sent a naval expedition to East Africa was during the Ming Dynasty when the emperor's envoy Zheng He led a large armada in the early 15th Century to the region for goodwill port calls.)
The modern Chinese task force consists of two missile destroyers and a replenishment oiler. The destroyers are the Haikou and Wuhan. These are two of China's newest warships. The Haikou, completed in 2005, is an advanced air-defense ship, the Chinese equivalent of a Western Aegis-type warship. With a full load displacement of about 6,500 tons, the Haikouhas a heavy anti-air and anti-ship missile armament as well as anti-submarine weapons. Two helicopters are embarked.
The Wuhan, completed in 2004, is the same size, also with a multi-mission capability, although without the advanced 30N6E multi-function radar (Western code name Tombstone). One helicopter is carried.
The replenishment oiler Weishanhu, a 22,000-ton ship, completes the anti-pirate force.
About 800 officers and sailors man the three ships, commanded by Rear Admiral Du Jingchen. Upon sailing, Admiral Du stated that, "China definitely has neither the intention of threatening interests of any sovereign parties nor the interest in breaking up power equilibrium in the region."
A Defense Ministry spokesman said in an earlier statement that Chinese naval forces would observe United Nations Security Council resolutions and relative international laws in fulfilling its obligations. Almost 1,300 Chinese merchant ships have passed through the Gulf of Aden in 2008, with seven being attacked. One fishing ship and her 18 crew members are still being held by pirates. Negotiations for their rescue are underway.
China's increasing world-wide political and economic interests have rarely been supported by military forces. Thus, the anti-pirate operation will provide excellent training for Chinese naval forces in such operations while at the same time giving their officers experience in tactical operations with other navies. And, for Western navies operating in the area, it will provide an excellent opportunity for intelligence collection against modern Chinese warships their procedures.