Facing the Threat of Piracy, China Starts to Talk Like a Superpower

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On a visit to the U.S. this week, China’s top military commander Chen Bingde suggested that the international coalition patrolling the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the coast of Somalia ought to take decisive action against pirate dens on land. So far, the counter-piracy strategy has focused on the pirate “mother-ships,” usually retrofitted trawlers that tow little skiffs out into the deep sea. Yet the pirate problem emanating from lawless Somalia cost the global economy over $8.3 billion in 2010. And China has a huge stake in securing its ever-increasing economic interests in the region.

Chen, the chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, told reporters:

For counter-piracy campaigns to be effective, we should probably move beyond the ocean and crash their bases on the land… It is important that we target not only the operators, those on the small ships or crafts conducting the hijacking activities, but also the figureheads.

It’s probably one of the first instances a high-ranking Beijing official publicly advocated what is tantamount to a ground war in a foreign country.

China, of course, is notoriously prickly about principles of sovereignty and “non-interference” and has invoked them for decades at the U.N. and in other forums of the international community, sometimes when seeking to thwart tough action on dictatorships and murderous regimes that happen to be close to Beijing. In the imagination of the developing world, military interventions like the U.S.-European swoop into Libya are still coded with the memory of an earlier, unjust imperial moment.

But, as China’s military grows leaps and bounds and Chinese enterprises take root across the globe, it’s getting more and more difficult to play the anti-imperialist card. China is the new empire on the block. And so the Chinese have increasingly tried to sugar coat their rise in positive, peaceful terms — a p.r. gambit that hasn’t always worked, especially given the opacity of the PLA and a steady drumbeat of aggressive Chinese maneuvers that have furrowed brows in a host of neighboring countries.

Which is why Chen’s remarks at the Pentagon are worthy of note: not only do they signal a willingness to engage in the sort of military adventures once shunned and derided by members of the old Non-Aligned Movement, but they were communicated in a larger discussion of improving trust between the U.S. and Chinese military, especially in situations like that off the Horn of Africa where both countries have a shared interest. Still, a more confident, assertive China, ready to throw its muscle around when it needs to, is only going to add to the wariness of many other capitals in Asia and stoke the coals of an intensifying regional arms race.

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