On September 26, 2021, the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) dispatched a small of flotilla towards the Gulf of Aden. Composed of one Type 52D Destroyer (Urumqi), one Type 54A Frigate (Yantai), and a Type 903 Replenishment Vessel (Taihu), the detachment was deployed with the expressed intent of providing security in waters off the coast of Somalia. Not only does the operation enhance security, but also provides PLAN personnel with invaluable experience and the People's Republic of China (PRC) with enhanced power projection capabilities in the region.
The deployment of the PLAN flotilla coincided with the arrival of the Essex Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), centered around the USS Essex (LHD-2), on station in the Persian Gulf after a period at dock along the East Coast of the United States. Embarked aboard the ARG is the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).
Since 2008, the PLAN has attempted to increase it footprint in the Gulf of Aden not only in an attempt to assist international security operations, but also to increase its control over the Red Sea, which feeds directly into the Suez Canal. In preparation for continued operations over the coming years, the PRC has invested heavily into its only installation in the region, PLA Support Base Djibouti. The naval base, which is touted as necessary for peacekeeping and humanitarian operations in Africa, significantly bolsters Beijing's ability to surge naval power into the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, and Indian Ocean as needed.
According to available information, which is severely limited due to highly effective operational security measures, the PLAN deployment directly supports several main objectives for the People's Republic of China.
The deployment not only limits potential security issues near a major international shipping lane, but also provides the PLAN with invaluable training opportunities and 'lessons learned'. According a report published by the Center for Asian Studies in cooperation with Lieutenant Commander Jéröme Henry of the French Navy, the PLAN has utilized such operations to support significant, "modernization goals." Additionally, officers that take part in such deployments, "enjoy promotion to important positions after returning." It is not uncommon to see significant changes in doctrine upon the return of these flotillas to their homeports.
Furthermore, the deployment of warships to the Gulf of Aden offers Beijing a degree of power in an extremely important body of water, as the Red Sea feeds directly into the Suez Canal. Thus, despite Beijing's claims that such deployments are purely in the interest of international maritime security, The Intelligence Ledger assesses that such operations directly benefit China's operational and strategic objectives as well.