October 26, 2010:
Recently, a Chinese hospital ship arrived off Somalia. It was not there to treat sick Somalis, but to provide a rest stop for Chinese sailors serving on warships participating in the anti-piracy patrol. The hospital ship will then visit ports in Djibouti, Kenya, Tanzania, the Seychelles and Bangladesh, to provide free medical treatment for locals, and then return home. China has become concerned with low morale among their sailors serving off Somalia. Including transit time, these ships spend nearly eight months away from home, and China has not allowed its navy to establish a base, for shore leave, in the region. All other navies have such arrangements, but not China. Instead, China has just launched a special crew support ship. It's a converted cruise ship, with expanded medical facilities (to treat any victims of local diseases or those injured on duty). But recreational and entertainment spaces have been left largely unchanged, so sailors can get a few days of rest and relaxation without going ashore anywhere.
For a year now, Chinese admirals have been pushing their government to help them establish a support base near the Persian Gulf. The immediate need is for an easier way to supply the Chinese warships working with the anti-piracy patrol off Somalia. This could be done by negotiating basing rights, where some Chinese naval personnel would set up shop at a port in the area, and make arrangements for resupplying and repairing any Chinese warships operating in the area, as well as allowing the Chinese warships to tie up in the local port for extended periods of time. Such arrangements are basically a commercial undertaking, but must be negotiated government-to-government because military forces are involved. Many nations have such arrangements in the region, particularly the Persian Gulf. Chinese sailors coming ashore would basically be treated like tourists, and subject to local law. This can get sticky if sailors misbehave, as sailors sometimes do, and get arrested. Many sailors on Chinese warships have access to classified information, and no navy likes having their sailors under the control of foreign police. It's feared that the police investigation will include agents from a local, or foreign, intelligence, agency.
Some Chinese admirals are content with the current arrangements which, they note, works fine with other foreign warships that have been doing these types of distant operations far longer than the Chinese. Meanwhile, Chinese diplomats have been negotiating other commercial deals with the nations hosting the Chinese warships,
There is a tendency for the basing rights to evolve into a naval base, complete with a "status of forces" agreement which allows the Chinese navy to discipline misbehaving sailors, in cooperation with local authorities (so the sailors don't get away with anything, especially in the eyes of the locals.) Allowing a foreign navy to establish themselves on your territory is a touchy subject, and must be handled carefully. The Chinese would be expected to be generous and useful guests. But, at the same time, the full time presence of the Chinese navy would mean a military relationship with the local host, and a willingness to help the host out in the event of any diplomatic trouble or military threat. This works both ways, as a major rationale for a Chinese naval base in the region is to protect the growing traffic of raw materials headed for China, and manufactured goods coming out of China. Everyone has an interest in ensuring that this sea traffic moves unhindered by pirates, or any other manmade threat. Well, almost everyone. India would prefer that the Chinese Navy stay out of the Indian Ocean. The Chinese, while establishing bases in Burma, and many business enterprises in Africa, have shown little interest is obtaining basing rights in the Persian Gulf or northeast Africa.