BEIJING – A Chinese general's call for land attacks on Somali pirate strongholds is being seen by analysts as another sign of the armed forces' growing assertiveness, even if the proposal is unlikely to result in action.
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday in Washington, Gen. Chen Bingde said he believes land bases must be assaulted in order to eradicate piracy.
"I think that for our counter-piracy campaigns to be effective, we should probably move beyond the ocean and crush their bases on the land," Chen said, adding that those funding and organizing piracy must be targeted along with rank-and-file brigands.
Chen's call was interpreted among analysts more as a statement of desire than intent, with the People's Liberation Army ill-equipped to carry out such missions and little appetite among other nations for dispatching troops to the African mainland.
His remarks, however, fit a pattern of greater outspokenness among PLA leaders that sometimes diverges from the official government line, especially in areas outside China's core interests of Taiwan, Tibet and its South China Sea territorial claims.
Senior officers have raised eyebrows with strong assertions of the need for bigger budgets, more advanced capabilities and a more combative posture toward the United States, the pre-eminent military force in the Asia- Pacific region that Beijing regards as its chief rival. That in itself reflects the influence of the PLA, the world's largest standing military with 2.3 million members and an annual budget of $91.5 billion, the second highest in the world behind the U.S.
China's navy has taken part in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden since December 2008, the first long-term overseas operation for a force more accustomed to sailing along China's periphery on the lookout for foreign incursions.
Before this week, however, Beijing was not known to have advocated direct attacks on land areas from which pirates operate, a strategy the U.S. and other countries taking part in the patrols have steered clear of for fear of becoming mired in ongoing campaigns in Somalia — a lawless nation where 18 American servicemen were killed in the capital, Mogadishu, in 1993.
Although China's sustained three-year anti-piracy mission has been a notable success, analysts say China lacks the key equipment and operational experience necessary to make such missions successful, chief among them a fleet of heavy helicopters of the type used in the recent U.S. raid on the Pakistani city of Abbottabad that killed Osama bin Laden.
Further complicating matters, China adheres to a strict policy of not dispatching troops abroad unless local authorities or the United Nations have given their approval.
Chen's comments may reflect the military's frustration with operational gap between it and U.S. forces, as well as the fact that Somali piracy is continuing despite the naval patrols, said Gabe Collins, a Boston-based expert on the Chinese military and co-founder of China Signpost.
"They are well aware of what the Americans and others can do and people in the special operations community want to have the same capabilities," Collins said.
Shen Dingli, director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai's Fudan University, said it's impossible to tell whether Chen's comments represent his own or those of the military or government, but there exists little real desire to go after pirate havens.
"People don't even want to have to deal with pirates captured at sea," Shen said.