Chinese analysts have called it a "major shift" in the country's mindset over security issues, while foreign media said the move could have "far-reaching consequences" beyond national shores.
All are paying close attention to the unprecedented deployment of a Chinese flotilla to Somali waters to join a global fight against increasingly rampant piracy.
The two destroyers - Haikou and Wuhan - and a supply vessel, Weishanhu, will carry two helicopters, missiles, cannons and a crew including special forces. They are scheduled to leave the port city of Sanya in southern Hainan province today for the Gulf of Aden on the three-month assignment.
The deployment is considered the first case in recent history that sees China sending vessels on a potential combat mission beyond its territorial waters.
"It is a huge breakthrough in China's concepts about security," said Li Wei, director of the anti-terrorism research center at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations.
The move signals a change in how the country is dealing with its perceived threats, Li said.
Traditional concepts of security have focused on the behavior of sovereign states in areas covering the military, politics and foreign policy. But ideas of non-traditional security often stem from the actions of non-state actors, such as terrorism, financial crises, natural disasters, growing populations and the piracy in Somalia, Li said.
With China's increasing involvement in global affairs, these non-traditional security concerns occurring outside of the country have increasingly threatened its interests, Li said.
"Sending troops to join in the Somali anti-piracy mission signals the change in China's concept of security from the traditional to the non-traditional," he said.
The Chinese flotilla headed for the waters off the East African country to ensure the safety of Chinese vessels and crew on board as well as ships carrying humanitarian relief material for international organizations, such as the World Food Program earlier this month. The UN Security Council unanimously agreed to authorize countries to fight piracy in Somali waters, and even on land, to free one of the world's busiest commercial sea channels of the menace.
The Gulf of Aden itself leads to the Suez Canal and is considered the quickest route from Asia to Europe and the Americas. It is also one of the important trade arteries for China, through which about 40 percent of all the goods and raw materials bound for the country pass, said Kang Shuchun, a researcher in Chinese shipping.
Somali pirates have reportedly attacked one-fifth of the Chinese ships that passed through Somali waters from January to November this year. They hijacked 15 vessels and are still holding one of them and 18 crewmen to ransom, Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said.
"China's military participation sends a strong political message to the international community, that a China with its improved economic and military strength is willing to play a larger role in maintaining world peace and security," Li said.
However, compared with a number of its foreign counterparts, analysts said China's navy still functions at a comparatively low level. The latest mission will not only see the Chinese navy facing a new maritime situation, it will also demand that the Chinese forces do a good job in patrolling, locating and intercepting pirates, said Peng Guangqian, a Beijing-based military strategist.
Maintaining smooth coordination and cooperation with other navies in surrounding areas also remains a major obstacle for China's fledgling navy, Peng said.
"The upcoming naval deployment in the pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast will bring the Chinese navy to the forefront of unprecedented challenges and difficulties," he said.
The deployment is still a "renaissance" in building awareness of contemporary naval capabilities, in line with the concept of sailing far afield of one's shores and conducting vessel-escorting exercises, Beijing-based military strategist Dai Xu told China National Defense. Previous operations of the Chinese navy focused on "inshore activities" and the Chinese navy will get an opportunity to test its capacity, he said.
"A small-scale battle is more real than large drills," he said, adding that taking part in such missions on the international level will accelerate the reform of the Chinese navy.
While the country has followed an inshore defense naval strategy, the decision to send out a fleet far beyond its borders has also provoked wide speculation from the international community on its intentions behind the move.
Foreign media agencies said China aims to build a "blue-water navy" - alluding to the activities that symbolize naval might typified by fleets of US and Russian aircraft carriers - through the current mission.
In a recent report by The Washington Post, the newspaper compares the Somali mission to the efforts made by Chinese naval pioneer Zheng He.
The fleet of Zheng He in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) consisted of enormous nine-mast junks, supply ships, water tankers, patrol boats and more than 27,000 sailors and soldiers, who allegedly defeated major pirates in Somali waters then and completed several epic voyages.
"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)," the paper said, while AFP reported that "the decision is both historic and could have far-reaching consequences".
Other media also said the mission has caused "anxiety" among its Asian neighbors Japan and India.
Japan and South Korea do not have aircraft carriers but are considered to possess significant naval strength including battleships that can carry aircraft.
India also has an aircraft carrier, large-scale destroyers and nuclear submarines.
China's naval power is relatively weak in this regard, analysts said.
Naval activities on such a global scale require comprehensive capabilities that include adequate logistics, intelligence activities and strong communication networks.
As such, the country's naval activities have so far been limited to maritime exchanges with its nascent navy.
In 2002, a Chinese fleet made its inaugural round-the-globe trip, lasting four months and 30,000 nautical miles. However, the Chinese navy has so far primarily focused on defending the country's coastal security and limited its overseas operations to port calls, goodwill visits and exercises with other navies.
The country's naval strategy will still focus on off-shore defense and its navy cannot be considered a blue-water navy, Peng said.
But that does not mean China cannot venture outside the near seas, he said.
"Possessing the power of pelagic maneuvering does not contradict our near-sea defense policy. It should further develop to act as a vanguard of the country's modernization program," Peng said.
Source: China Daily