Softly, softly - so far

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 October, 2009, 12:00am

Adusty, fly-strewn fishing port on the east coast of Somalia may seem a strange place from which to glimpse the future. But it is here that Beijing faces the kind of military and diplomatic test that a rapidly growing navy will have to confront in its efforts to better protect the nation's broadening global interests.

The Chinese-flagged coal carrier De Xin Hai and its 25 mainland crew have been held under armed guard by pirates off the port of Hobyo since Thursday. They were captured far out in the Indian Ocean beyond the Seychelles four days earlier, despite the presence of a People's Liberation Army naval task force nearby that is part of an international anti-piracy armada.

If it was some kind of domestic trouble in a restive province or a less visible act of high seas criminality, perhaps the response from Beijing would be swift and brutal. The solution to this trouble, however, is far more complex and must play out before a considerable domestic and international audience.

For the world, it is a chance to see how China's new navy can operate far from home and the extent to which Beijing may be prepared to use force to defend its economic rights and interests.

Domestically, of course, the fires of nationalism have already been lit and stoked with constant references to growing military might and the skills of crack units, including the special forces teams aboard the three mainland warships off the Horn of Africa. The bloggers want blood.

But, for the time being at least, they are unlikely to get it. State media already appears to be determined to limit expectations, with the hijacking largely conspicuous by its absence in news bulletins from day one.

Behind the scenes, Beijing appears to be putting its faith in military intelligence gathering, co-operation and negotiations - even if the threat of force remains on the table.

Only fools would rush into Somalia; its warlords and gangs thrive in a failed state that has no effective government or authority. Through cunning and rocket-propelled grenades, they have humbled even the US military.

That said, China would have broad leeway to act if it wanted. UN Security Council resolutions acknowledge the menace of Somali piracy and few will complain over any reasonable use of force at sea or on land, as long as hostages are rescued safely.

While events seem to have moved rapidly, putting China in an unprecedented situation, the broader scenario is no accident.

When China's ships sailed to join the international patrols off the Horn of Africa, amid domestic fanfare back in January, it wasn't just a flag-waving exercise.

Marking the nation's first foray into potential combat beyond territorial waters in centuries, it reflected hard economic interests - the need to protect vital shipping routes between Asia and Europe. The shrewder commentators at the time noted that China would not be merely attending for show, but would probably seek to take a leadership role if the situation worsened.

And within days of the hijacking, we have seen China invite other naval officials to Beijing for an urgent meeting to improve and expand co-operation off Somalia, an effort traditionally led by the European Union and the US.

The deployment was another sign that China's military build-up could drive all manner of engagements and expanded military diplomacy, from peacekeeping operations and search and rescue to the need for offshore bases and surveillance.

Already, PLA strategists are giving increased thought to a concept they called 'Military Operations Other Than War'.

The 'MOOTW' element of the Ministry of National Defence website is marked by a peace symbol. The growing international interest in the real ambitions and capabilities underlying China's military expansion suggest many are still to be convinced, however. Until they are, the appearance of Chinese naval vessels off a forlorn stretch of East African coast will generate a great deal of scrutiny.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent