Academic journal article Naval War College Review

CHINA'S BLUE SOFT POWER: Antipiracy, Engagement, and Image Enhancement

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

CHINA'S BLUE SOFT POWER: Antipiracy, Engagement, and Image Enhancement

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

On 3 September 2014, almost six years since Chinese warships first entered the Gulf of Aden to fulfill antipiracy duties, China Central Television (CCTV)-8 aired the first episode of "In the Gulf of Aden" (...)·1 The multidozen-episode program, designed to "ignite raging patriotism" (...)» given evening prime-time status, and attracting a popular audi- ence with a star-studded cast, explores in dramatic fashion Beijing's experience fighting modern piracy Produced by the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Political Depart- ment's Television Art Center (...) over three years, the series offers a unique window into how the PLAN has conducted its antipiracy mission and seeks to portray its experi- ence to a Chinese audience.

In the first episode's action-packed begin- ning, PLAN Vessel 168 deploys special forces by helicopter to repel Somali pirates boarding the crippled China Ocean Shipping (Group) Company vessel Zhanshan. Meanwhile, Electro-Mechanical Branch squad leader Sun Weimin helps fix the ship's stalled engine, enabling it to rejoin the es- cort formation.2 Political commissar Xiao Weiguo subsequently grants Sun a twenty-minute phone call home-twice his previous allocation. Later episodes intersperse the glories of Gulf of Aden operations with the privations of being away from families, who are separated from service members by thousands of miles and by limitations in information transmission.3 Gripping scenes portray PLAN personnel constantly checking food quality, averting phytosanitary disaster by switching in-port suppliers, refueling under way, weathering storms, exercising with foreign navies and receiving their officers aboard, adjusting plans rapidly to handle unexpected challenges, using special weapons and techniques to dispel pirates nonlethally, saving wounded merchant seamen with emergency medical treatment, and receiving gratitude from domestic and foreign ships they protect.

While some aspects of helicopter operations, weapons firing, and special forces engagement with pirates appear embellished for cinematic effect, the series uses real PLAN personnel and PLAN and civilian ships.4 Many details match realistic documentation in China's state and military media. Human experiences are personified uniquely-as when a PLAN marine, Fang Xiaoba, pays respects at the grave of his father, who died rendering medical assistance in Tanzania-but collectively represent actual struggles and triumphs of sailors and families. A few scenarios exceed actual events to date. Most prominently, on a small forested island off Somalia, Team Leader Mao Dahua leads his special forces in a sixteen- hour battle replete with exchanges of fire to evacuate thirteen Taiwanese fisher- men cornered by pirates.5 Yet such heroics are not utterly fanciful and might well foreshadow future PLAN operations.

Beyond simply serving as a blockbuster image engaging domestic dreams of a strong military, however, since 2008 China's antipiracy escorts have provided im- portant soft-power benefits for Beijing on a truly international stage. For the first time in its modern history China has deployed naval forces operationally beyond its immediate maritime periphery for extended durations, to protect merchant vessels from pirates in the Gulf of Aden. Over a six-year span beginning in De- cember 2008, China has contributed over ten thousand navy personnel in nearly twenty task forces. In nearly eight hundred groups, these forces have escorted over six thousand Chinese and foreign commercial vessels and have "protected and helped over 60" of them.6 As the PLAN'S commander, Admiral Wu Shengli, informed one of the authors, the mission has achieved "two '100 percents' LfiL¿LÍ]: providing 100 percent security to all ships under escort, while ensur- ing PLAN forces' own security 100 percent."7

Although it is uncertain how many task forces will be deployed and for how long, China's presence in the Gulf of Aden has extended through 2014, and the PLAN appears almost certain to continue efforts through 2015;s it will likely persist for still longer if the United Nations further extends its mandate for na- vies to fight piracy off Somalia. …

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