A necessary but not sufficient condition of being a superpower is not just the possession of power but also the ability to deploy it around the world. This week a Chinese warship was in the Mediterranean. PLA Navy ships have been in those waters before on goodwill visits but not on active duty. Now, one swallow does not a summer make. The 4,000 ton missile carrying 054A class frigate, the Xuzhou, seen above in April last year during a naval parade off Qingdao, was on a humanitarian mission to evacuate Chinese nationals from civil war-stricken Libya and had been redeployed from international anti-piracy patrols off the coast of Somalia.
Yet those patrols in turn are the first deployment of a PLA Navy group of warships outside of China’s regional waters. We imagine it was no coincidence that one of the navy’s most modern missile carrying frigates was deputed to the evacuation task. It is equally notable that a Chinese warship can enter these waters without causing alarums and excursions, a testament to the general lack of global military deployment of the country’s military power hitherto. And there is no doubt that Beijing’s swift evacuation of its citizens from Libya is driven by domestic political concerns rather than any about its international standing. Yet every journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.