The last time Chinese warships sailed to Africa was some 600 years ago, when a fleet com- manded by Admiral Zheng, a Ming dynasty eunuch, arrived on a diplomatic mission. This week two Chinese destroyers and a supply vessel are also due to set out for the Gulf of Aden, where they will join an international armada attempting to clear vital sea lanes of Somali pirates.
The expedition marks an important evolution in Beijing’s diplomacy. China has taken part in several international peacekeeping operations, but until now it has kept its troops in its own neighbourhood, reflecting a longstanding policy of non-interference in other countries’ affairs. The expedition to the waters off Somalia, however, is intended not only to protect Chinese vessels vulnerable to attack by pirates, but also to project its growing military power overseas in a way that does not antagonise its neighbours or cause concern in Washington.