Chinese warships carrying two helicopters, missiles, cannons and special forces trained to fight pirates single-handedly even with their bare hands, set sail for the waters off Somalia on Friday.
This is the naval fleet's first such mission beyond Chinese coastlines — since the fifteenth century.
“It's a huge breakthrough in China's concepts about security,'' Li Wei, Director of the anti-terrorism research center at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told the State-run China Daily newspaper.
“The move signals a change in how the country is dealing with perceived threats.''
This year, pirates hijacked over 40 vessels off Somalia's coastline and made millions of dollars in ransom.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said that pirates attacked seven Chinese commercial ships — out of 1,265 that passed through the Gulf of Aden this year. Pirates are still holding captive 18 crew members aboard a Chinese fishing ship.
China has joined the world's patrol against pirates with two Chinese destroyers and a supply ship with a total of 800 crew.
“Our primary target is not striking pirates but dispersing them,” Rear Admiral Du Jingchen, chief of staff of the South China sea fleet told the State-run Xinhua news agency.
The fleet is sailing to the Gulf of Aden on a three-month mission that may be extended.
The 1,480 km long passage between Yemen and Somalia is one of the world's busiest commercial waterways, and it links the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.
State-run media said that the escort mission will protect Chinese vessels carrying cargo like crude oil, and ships from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan.
From January 6, the fleet will accept protection appeals from foreign ships. India, USA, Russia and the NATO also have ships patrolling the Somali waters.
“The Chinese deployment gets at a question the US and other governments have been asking,'' Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Centre in Hawaii, told AP. “Why the big Chinese military buildup when no country threatens China?''