Despite tensions running high between Hong Kong and Beijing after three months of protests in the southern city, there was little sign of any ill feeling between the two sides at the weekend, when a destroyer from the Chinese navy went to the aid of a Hong Kong-registered oil tanker in the Gulf of Aden.
The Gas Beryl, which transports liquefied petroleum gas, set sail from the port of Panambur on India's west coast on September 9 bound for Yanbu in Saudi Arabia. To reach its destination it had to pass through the Gulf of Aden, which is considered one of the world's most dangerous waterways because of the high prevalence of pirates.
Aware that a fleet from the PLA Navy was in the region, the captain of the tanker on Saturday sent a request for an escort vessel as he guided his ship through the potentially hazardous waters.
The military vessels, which comprise a destroyer, a frigate and a supply ship from the North Sea Fleet - the naval arm of the Northern Theatre Command - had been dispatched to the region with the primary aim of protecting commercial shipping, Xinhua reported.
After receiving the request, the fleet dispatched its destroyer - the Xining - to escort the Gas Beryl to the western end of the gulf. And according to a post on the fleet's official social media account on Sunday, the gesture was very well received.
Immediately after the operation the tanker's crew raised three banners, saying: "Thanks China", "Thanks to the motherland" and "Thanks to the People's Liberation Army Navy".
Perhaps more significantly under the current circumstances, they also hoisted the national flag of China and the flag of Hong Kong. Over the past 14 weeks of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, the national flag has frequently been the target of the protesters' ire.
As well as the three vessels, the PLA's North Sea Fleet in the Middle East includes more than 600 officers and soldiers, and two helicopters. It set sail for the region from Qingdao in east China's Shandong province on August 30.
The PLA Navy has been conducting escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia since December 2008. In that time it has dispatched 106 vessels and more than 28,000 personnel to escort over 6,700 Chinese and foreign ships.
The increased presence of Chinese warships in foreign waters is in line with Beijing's growing international interests - mostly driven by the Belt and Road Initiative - and reflects the navy's growing role as a global expeditionary force.
That greater involvement has not been without objection, however, with Asia-Pacific states like India, the United States and Japan all expressing concerns.
Last year, the US Department of Defence issued a report outlining its concerns about the expansion of the PLA Navy's submarine operations in the Indian Ocean.
"These submarine patrols demonstrate the PLAN's emerging capability both to interdict key sea lines of communication and to increase China's power projection into the Indian Ocean," it said.
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