GUANGZHOU, China – Chinese warships headed toward Somali waters Friday to combat piracy, the first time the country has sent ships on a mission that could involve fighting 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.
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.
Pentagon spokesman Maj. Stewart Upton said the U.S. welcomed China's move.
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 China 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. 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.
India 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 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 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."