The announcement today that China will dispatch its navy to defend against pirates of the Somali coast is a big one. It marks the first time that China has committed itself to taking part in what a Chinese naval officer called a multi-lateral "battle task."
That harkens back to Zheng He, the Ming Dynasty court eunuch who commanded a fleet of vessels that crossed the Indian Ocean and made it to the coast of East Africa (and maybe beyond). Zheng He's fleet consisted of giant nine-masted junks, supply ships, water tankers, patrol boats, and more than 27,000 sailors and soldiers. The largest of the junks was over 400 feet long and 150 feet wide -- more than twice the size of Spanish or Portuguese vessels of that time. Zheng, who sailed the seas almost a century before Christopher Columbus found the Americas, brought back boatloads of goodies from his voyages, including a giraffe that apparently spooked the emperor. After several voyages, however, China's blue water navy days were over -- a casualty of conservative forces within the Forbidden City that saw no reason for China to engage in foreign adventures.
Well, it looks like they are back now. China's navy has been growing slowly but surely over the past 20 years. They have purchased destroyers from Russia, equipped with Sunburn anti-ship missiles (with over the horizon capability); they have a growing fleet of submarines -- both diesel and nuclear. They have improved their amphibious landing capabilities. They still don't have an aircraft carrier. (Reports that China was building or on the verge of buying an aircraft carrier have been popping up in the press since the late '80s.) But that could change.
China's contribution to the multi-lateral task force will be more modest than Zheng He's crew: two destroyers and a depot ship will debark from the big PLA naval base on Sanya Island after Christmas.
There's been some speculation about why China decided to pony up men and materiel for the fight. For one, six Chinese ships have been attacked by pirates. So there's been a lot of chatter in Chinese on the Internet accusing the government of not standing up to this menace. More pointedly, however, India's navy has been performing yeoman's work against the pirates and it appears that China -- which views India as a natural competitor -- also wanted to get in on the act.