BEIJING, China (CNN) -- Two Chinese destroyers and a supply ship set sail Friday for the Gulf of Aden on a mission to protect Chinese merchant ships from an increasing number of pirate attacks occurring in the waters off Somalia, state media reported.
China has reportedly been working to rapidly modernize its fleet.
The Navy fleet left from a port in Sanya city in the southernmost island province of Hainan at 1:50 p.m., according to Xinhua news agency.
It marks the first time Chinese naval vessels have left Chinese waters in centuries. They will will join a multinational naval force already patrolling the area, including vessels from the United States, NATO member states, Russia and India.
"This demonstrates that the Chinese government is committed to the international community and a responsible player and a major country in the world," Rear Admiral Xiao Xinnian told reporters when the mission was announced last week.
The ships are carrying two helicopters and special operations forces, officials said.
Figures from the International Maritime Bureau for the year-to-date show pirates have attacked almost 100 vessels and hijacked nearly 40 off the coast of Somalia.
The all-important Gulf of Aden links the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. Around 20,000 oil tankers, freighters and merchant vessels pass along the crucial shipping route each year.
China's move is one of the latest reactions to piracy in the gulf. A top Japanese official said Wednesday that Tokyo was considering sending vessels to join the effort.
Meanwhile, German sailors on Thursday foiled an attempt by pirates to hijack an Egyptian cargo ship off the coast of Yemen, the German Defense Ministry said.
The German navy frigate Karlsruhe responded to an emergency call from the Wabi Al Arab Thursday morning, sending helicopters to the stricken vessel. When the helicopters arrived, the pirates broke off the attack, the ministry said.
A crew member on the Wabi Al Arab was wounded when the pirates attempted to board the vessel. He was flown by helicopter for treatment aboard the Karlsruhe, the ministry said.
The German sailors captured the pirates and disarmed them, destroying the weapons, the ministry said.
China's navy is considered a "brown-water fleet" -- designed to operate almost exclusively along its coast. But the country has reportedly been working to rapidly modernize its navy for the past several years.
Chinese officials have said their mission would last as long as is necessary and in accordance with U.N. Security Council regulations.
The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution last week aimed at combating piracy along the Horn of Africa by allowing military forces to chase pirate onto land in cases of "hot pursuit."
The Security Council resolution, which passed unanimously, expands upon existing counter-piracy tools, including a stipulation that would allow for national and regional military forces to chase pirates onto land -- specifically into Somalia, where many of the pirates have their bases.
Among the victims of pirate attacks have been cargo ships, oil tankers and luxury yachts.
At least one major company pulled its ships from the Gulf of Aden region this year, meaning cargo bound for Europe had to round the African continent rather than use the Suez Canal.