Beijing: A Chinese navy task force has wrapped up visits to four Gulf states as the increasingly capable maritime force grows its presence in the strategically vital region.

The three ships departed Kuwait on Sunday, the Defence Ministry said on its website Monday. They had previously completed an assignment escorting commercial shipping and patrolling for pirates in the Gulf of Aden, the 24th Chinese task force to be dispatched for such duties since China joined the multinational effort in December 2008.

China’s navy has used the patrols to build its capacity to operate far from home ports and expand its use of the military as a tool of diplomacy following the model of other major nations. In its report, the ministry said the visits aimed to stir interest in China’s project to link European and Asian economies along the ancient Silk Road land and sea routes.

In addition, the deployments have prompted Beijing to build a logistics and support centre in Djibouti that is widely considered to be China’s first overseas military base.

The Horn of Africa nation already hosts US, French and Japanese bases for logistical support and to facilitate African military operations. Japan, China’s longtime Asian rival, is now seeking to expand its Djibouti facility as a counterweight to China’s presence, Japanese media report.

The patrols have also given China ready access to the Mediterranean, and, in 2011, it took the unprecedented step of sending one of its most sophisticated warships together with military transport aircraft to help in the evacuation of about 35,000 Chinese citizens from Libya.

In 2015, China detached three navy ships from the anti-piracy patrols to rescue Chinese citizens and other foreign nationals from fighting in Yemen. The same year, it took part in its first Mediterranean joint naval exercises with Russia.

The Chinese task force making the recent visits consists of the guided-missile destroyer Harbin, the guided-missile frigate Handan and the supply ship Dongpinghu.