Warships from the Chinese navy have begun a landmark mission to protect ships from pirates in the waters off Somalia.
Two destroyers escorted their first four Chinese vessels in the Gulf of Aden on Tuesday, the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.
The agency said the mission was to protect mainly Chinese vessels, but the navy would also help escort foreign ships if asked.
Qin Gang, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, said at a press conference on Tuesday that the navy would also protect ships from Taiwan, the self-governed island that Beijing claims as Chinese territory.
China's doctrine of non-interference in other nations' affairs has kept its armed forces traditionally close to home and the deployment marks its first combat mission beyond its territorial waters in decades.
He Jianzhong, a spokesman for China's transport ministry, said the naval team would "actively provide information and necessary rescue services for those merchant ships passing through the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters".
The naval team is operating with the approval of the UN Security Council and Somalia's transitional government, while the mission's commander has pledged to "earnestly follow UN resolutions and relevant international laws".
But Rear Admiral Xiao Xinnian, the navy's deputy chief of staff, warned prospective pirates that his sailors were prepared to use force.
"[If] our naval vessels are ambushed by pirate ships we will resolutely fight back to protect our own safety," Xiao told reporters in Beijing, adding that they would "suppress" any acts of piracy they came across.
The missile-armed Haikou and Wuhan, said to be two of the Chinese navy's most sophisticated destroyers, along with two helicopters and the supply ship Weishanhu, are carrying about 800 crew members in total, including 70 members of the elite special forces.
Their deployment, alongside other international warships patrolling the area, is in response to a recent surge of pirate attacks on vessels plying the crucial shipping route.
Last year saw around 100 pirate attacks in the region, pushing up insurance costs and bringing the pirates tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments.
It has also prompted some firms to begin sailing their vessels on the longer and more expensive route around Africa.