Soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy's first nuclear-powered submarine force line up in Qingdao, East China's Shandong province, Oct 27, 2013. [Photo/Xinhua]
It is not difficult to imagine the tremendous relief of the Chinese workers when they got on board the two Chinese frigates that rescued them from war-torn Yemen. The rescue was just a fresh example of the increasingly sophisticated operations of the People's Liberation Army Navy in the Indian Ocean.
Apart from its primary mission of fighting pirates, Chinese ships have escorted vessels loaded with chemical weapons out of Syria and helped provide fresh water to people in the Maldives. A submarine joined the Chinese task force in September 2014, and the Chinese hospital ship Ark Peace sailed along the east coast of Africa to provide medical treatment to African people.
Thanks to concerted international efforts, piracy in the Gulf of Aden has been curbed. But it has not been eradicated. Besides, piracy in the Strait of Malacca, once curbed by the littoral states, is rising again.
And since 2008, the UN Security Council has renewed its mandate for counter-piracy measures in the waters off Somalia year after year. The fear is that, if the international navies stop patrolling the waters, pirates will simply stage a comeback.
China also has other stakes in the Indian Ocean. More than 80 percent of its fuel imports pass through the Strait of Malacca.
The proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and China-Bangladesh-Myanmar-India Economic Corridor, two mega-projects of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, will be close to the rim of the Indian Ocean.
Chinese gas and oil pipelines pass through Myanmar's west coast to China's hinterland, and many Chinese nationals work in the littoral states.
In the Indian Ocean, the PLA Navy has blended two purposes into one: safeguarding national interests and performing its international duties. The PLA Navy has escorted eight ships of the World Food Program for Somalia. Half of the nearly 6,000 ships the Chinese navy has escorted were foreign vessels.
In Yemen, the Chinese ships evacuated 279 foreigners from 15 countries along with 613 Chinese nationals.
The PLA Navy's mission in the Indian Ocean is essentially humanitarian. But it could transform into the strategic task of safeguarding the sea lines of communication.
Maritime trade accounts for 90 percent of the world transport. So it is critically important for China, as the largest trading country in the world, to ensure the safety of the "choking points" like the Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb and the Strait of Malacca.
That, however, does not mean the PLA Navy harbors any ambition of controlling or policing these straits, as Alfred Mahan suggested to the American navy. Secure sea lines are in the interest of all sea-faring nations, which could be done only in cooperation with other countries through joint patrolling.
The PLA Navy's presence in the Indian Ocean is also to ensure freedom of navigation, a fundamental principle of international law.
China and the US hold different views on freedom of navigation. China is opposed to American surveillance/reconnaissance in China's exclusive economic zones while the US describes it as freedom of navigation. The two countries also disagree on what freedom of navigation means in the South China Sea. But in the Indian Ocean, this is not an issue. China, India and the US can work together with like-minded states to ensure the freedom of navigation.
Chinese naval vessels have appeared in the open seas of the world as never before, be it the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Guinea, or the Sunda Strait, to name just a few.
If Admiral Zheng He, a legendary Ming Dynasty explorer who commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433, were alive, he would have nodded approvingly. Compared with his seven voyages with the largest fleet of the day, in less than seven years, the PLA Navy has sent 20 task forces to the waters that Zheng He was so familiar with. The Chinese naval task force began patrolling the Gulf of Aden in 2009, and that year will be remembered as heralding the birth of a truly global navy.
The author is an honorary fellow with the Center of China-American Defense Relations, affiliated to the Academy of Military Science.