China launches anti-piracy mission

December 19, 2008 8:27:56 AM PST
China's decision to send warships to battle pirates off Somalia - taking on a job that involves cooperating with other nations and possible combat - is a cautious step toward more engagement by Beijing. Though China has a huge global commercial maritime presence, the People's Liberation Army Navy has primarily focused on defending China's coast and, until now, limited operations abroad to port calls, goodwill visits and exercises with other navies.

"They're on an actual mission, which could potentially involve combat, albeit of low intensity. That's a real difference," said Lyle Goldstein, director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. "This is not a dangerous mission - actually, it's the perfect coming out party for the Chinese navy."

China has never sent military forces overseas other than as part of a U.N.-mandated peacekeeping mission, according to Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. A Foreign Ministry announcement Thursday that China was making preparations to deploy warships followed a unanimous U.N. Security Council vote this week authorizing nations to conduct land and air attacks against pirates.

The Council acted as piracy has taken an increasingly costly toll on international shipping, especially in the Gulf of Aden, one of the world's busiest sea lanes. Spurred by widespread poverty in their homeland, the pirates have made an estimated $30 million hijacking ships for ransom this year, seizing more than 40 vessels off Somalia's 1,880-mile (3,000-kilometer) coastline.

"The fact that the U.N. discussed it and endorsed it is probably important for China. They don't want to be seen as sticking their necks out too far," Glaser said.

The Global Times, a newspaper published by the Communist Party, said the deployment would include two destroyers and a large supply ship. The report said the ships would set out after Christmas for a mission initially lasting three months. Tasks would include patrols and escorting cargo ships.

"It is consistent with the trends we have seen in China's evolving foreign policy of being more proactive and more involved overseas as China's interests have become more global," said Glaser of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It signals ... a willingness to take on new military missions farther from China's shores than they have in the past."

China's fleet would join ships from the U.S., Denmark, Italy, Russia and other countries in patrolling the Gulf of Aden, which leads to the Suez Canal and is the quickest route from Asia to Europe and the Americas. It is a vital trade artery for China, with as much as 40 percent of all goods and raw materials bound for China - including oil from the Middle East - passing through the area, said Kang Shuchun, an expert in Chinese shipping who runs an industry Web site.

So far this year, about 20 percent of the 1,265 Chinese ships passing through the area have come under attack. Seven hijackings have involved Chinese ships or crews, Liu said.

Kang said none of the commercial ships he has seen are armed, meaning crews have few options when attacked. A Chinese cargo ship's crew, aided by the international anti-piracy force, fought off an attempted hijacking this week using Molotov cocktails and water hoses.

"Normally, when they encounter pirates, they will just throw beer bottles or stand around and do nothing," he said.

In addition to the Chinese ship, a Malaysian tugboat was also hijacked this week by Somali pirates who contacted the boat's owners to say its 11 Indonesian crew members are safe but that "the payment of ransom would be discussed later," according to Malaysia's foreign minister Friday.

Ni Lexiong, a military expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said Beijing has reason to be reluctant about the mission that has significant downsides: the expense of a long deployment, suspicions China is trying to expand its military reach and vengeful pirates if naval forces are forced to fight.

"However, if China does not send the navy ... people will think the government is weak and unable to protect its ships, while internationally, as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, China might appear to be irresponsible," he said.

So far, other countries have responded positively to the likely Chinese involvement in the anti-piracy operation. Lt. Nathan Christensen, a Bahrain-based spokesman for the U.S. Navy, said the 5th Fleet welcomes "all ships that are willing to participate."

Even India, a longtime regional rival who is part of the anti-piracy effort, is supportive of China's assistance in the short term, said C. Uday Bhaskar, a former naval commander and retired director of India's Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses.

"I don't think India would see this as upsetting the strategic balance. I don't see it being a tilt or shift in the current maritime status quo," he said.