A Chinese fleet that set sail for the Gulf of Aden on Saturday on an anti-piracy escort mission will participate in naval exercises with Pakistan and other countries in the waters of the Arabian Sea next month, officials here have said.

The People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) 14th fleet will take part in a “multi-national exercise” in Pakistan in March, unnamed military sources told the official Xinhua news agency. The multi-national exercise, named “Aman-13”, will begin on March 4 in the North Arabian Sea, the sources said.

The fleet, which left the north-eastern port of Qingdao on Saturday, is comprised of missile destroyer Harbin, frigate Mianyang and a supply ship, in addition to two helicopters and 730 troops. Xinhua reported that the escort mission marked the first instance of the destroyer and frigate being deployed on an anti-piracy mission.

More challenges

China has organised 14 missions to the Gulf of Aden. The PLAN has, since last year, also begun to coordinate schedules of escort mission with India and other countries.

PLAN Deputy Commander Ding Yiping said at a farewell ceremony for the 14th fleet on Saturday that it was becoming “more challenging” for Chinese and foreign ships to combat piracy because the situation in the Gulf of Aden and Somalia was becoming “more deceptive and violent”, Xinhua reported.

While Chinese officials have pointed to the PLAN’s cooperation with a number of countries, particularly India and Japan, on anti-piracy missions as helping to increase trust between the navies, the deployment of Chinese fleets in the Indian Ocean with increasing frequency has also stirred debate about China’s need for military bases in the region.

Port project

While the Seychelles has offered resupply facilities for Chinese ships on port calls, Pakistani officials have even called for Chinese support to build a naval base at its port in Gwadar. China, however, has said that its interest in the port project — which was built with Beijing’s assistance and was last month transferred to a Chinese port company amid operational problems — was purely commercial, opening up a shorter route for energy imports from West Asia.

Pakistani media reports on Sunday said the agreement for handing over the operations at Gwadar – earlier managed by a Singaporean company — to the China Overseas Port Holding Authority would be formalised on Monday.