(RFE/RL) -- Three Chinese naval ships have set sail for Africa to protect the country's vessels from pirate attacks, marking a new chapter for the modern Chinese Navy, which has focused on the defense of coastal waters, combined with the occasional friendly port call.
Two destroyers and a supply ship weighed anchor at the Yalong Bay naval base on south China's Hainan Island to join warships from other nations already patrolling off Somalia.
Mission commander Rear Admiral Du Jingcheng said his personnel were prepared for a complicated mission expected to last at least three months.
"We will mostly escort vessels with goods on board in targeted waters or areas," Du said. "But for some vessels that are carrying important goods, we will conduct on-board escorting."
The Chinese military says its forces will board and inspect suspected pirate ships, try to rescue those who are attacked, and defend themselves if they themselves come under attack.
There have been dozens of pirate attacks this year in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean off Somalia, one of the world's busiest sea lanes, including against Chinese vessels.
The surge in attacks has pushed up insurance costs and brought the Somali gangs tens of millions of dollars in ransom.
The Somalia mission is China's first potential combat mission beyond its territorial waters since the 15th century, when a Ming Dynasty armada sailed to the continent and back.
It is seen as an opportunity for China to take a greater role in global security.
China has increasingly been involved in peacekeeping operations around the world, but has traditionally kept troops close to home, reflecting a doctrine of non-interference in other nations' affairs.
The Chinese vessels will operate alongside other members of the international task force patrolling the waters off Somalia.
Countries as diverse as Britain, France, Germany, India, Iran, and the United States have sent ships that are cruising the area or on their way there.
Japan, whose military activities overseas are tightly restricted by its post-World War II pacifist constitution, is considering joining the coalition.
with agency reports