China sends navy ship to protect Libya evacuees

China is taking the unprecedented step of dispatching a navy ship to protect its citizens being evacuated from conflict-ridden Libya — underscoring the navy's growing capabilities and Beijing's need to protect its citizens abroad.

The missile frigate Xuzhou was ordered to break off from anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden and is sailing toward Libya, the Defense Ministry said in a notice reported by state media Friday. It's orders are to protect ships carrying Chinese expatriates to safety, the notice issued Thursday said. No details were given.

The ship's mission, approved by the Central Military Commission headed by President Hu Jintao, marks the first time China's entaglement-wary leaders have ever sent a navy ship to take part in the evacuation of civilians.

Traditionally, China has shied away from missions that could be interpreted as projecting military power abroad, although such qualms began to melt away in Dec. 2008, when it dispatched the first of seven naval squadrons to the Gulf of Aden to take part in anti-piracy patrols around lawless Somalia.

The Libya mission "shows the Chinese navy is willing to play a more active role in international aid operations in international waters," said Zhu Feng, a professor at Peking University's School of International Studies.

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Chinese have taken up residence in developing countries for private business or to work on dams, roads and other infrastructure projects funded by China.

That growing presence has compelled China's leaders and diplomats to play an active role in protecting Chinese lives and property overseas by advocating for them with local authorities and organizing aid and evacuations in the case of unrest or natural disasters. Otherwise, they risk appearing callous before a Chinese public that has continued to support one-party communist rule through three decades of economic reform.

In Libya, Chinese workers have been injured and driven from their dormitories by looters who have attacked more than two dozen Chinese-run construction sites.

In addition to preventing attacks on ships carrying evacuees, the Xuzhou's dispatch also serves as a warning to elements in Libya not to harm Chinese civilians or prevent them from leaving the country, U.S. Naval War College China expert Andrew Erickson wrote in an article published late Thursday.

"This latest initiative is part of a larger ongoing increase in Chinese power, presence and influence around the world and should come as no surprise. China ... requires a presence in critical areas and situations in order to have a voice," Erickson wrote.

The mission sets a precedent for future operations in areas overseas where the lives and property of Chinese are threatened and will burnish the navy's credentials among the public, Erickson said. That in turn could help the force procure greater funding and support for aircraft carriers and other programs, he said.

The 4,500-ton Xuzhou was launched in 2006 and carries an array of air defense and anti-ship missiles, along with a Chinese-made Z-9 helicopter. To get to Libya, the ship must pass through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal and it wasn't clear when it would arrive.

An estimated 30,000 Chinese live in Libya, the majority of whom are now seeking to flee the country where fighting between rebels and foreign mercenaries and Libyan militiamen loyal to Moammar Gadhafi has killed hundreds.

Two ferries carrying 4,100 Chinese nationals arrived on the Greek island of Crete on Thursday, with another 2,100 expected to arrive in Malta on Friday. Another 450 arrived in Beijing on Friday morning aboard a pair of charter flights.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao was reported as saying Friday that a total of 12,000 Chinese have been evacuated, most of them by overland routes to Egypt and Tunisia. Additional charter flights and ferry trips have been scheduled.