China in talks with pirates to free crew
Stephen Chen and Greg Torode
Secret negotiations have begun on freeing the 25 mainland crew hijacked aboard a Chinese bulk carrier off Somalia last week amid promises from the pirates that the hostages and the ship would be kept safe.
Beijing and Qingdao Ocean Shipping, the owner of the hijacked De Xin Hai, are involved in what is expected within the shipping industry to be a drawn-out affair.
Confirming that talks had started, Chinese Shipowners' Association secretary general Zhang Zuyue said the Chinese side had worked 'several channels' to reach the pirates.
'They made it very clear that they have no intention to harm the crew and the goods on board - they just want a ransom,' Zhang said.
'The negotiation requires top-level secrecy. The outside world will not know the ransom amount. A leak of sensitive information will bring unnecessary troubles to the talks.
'Many parties are working hard at the front line and the Chinese government is just one of them. Ship owners and pirates play this game all time. The pirates of Somalia have got an upper hand in recent years with their huge organisation and changing tactics. They are a beaming new star in the history of piracy.'
Roger Middleton, a specialist in Somali piracy at the independent London think tank Chatham House, said negotiations typically started at about US$10 million for the safe release of a crew and ship, but the settlement reached was more likely to be between US$1 million and US$2 million.
'The pirates act as if they know they are in a strong position ... they are prepared to press every advantage,' he said.
The De Xin Hai and its crew are insured out of London - a potentially complicating factor in negotiations.
Foreign diplomats said China had not removed the threat of force but was unlikely to risk an armed operation as long as the ship was in a pirate-controlled port.
While both the Chinese government and mainland shipowners have been involved in previous settlements, the latest talks come amid unprecedented international and domestic scrutiny. State media have generally played down the latest hijacking, but bloggers have demanded tough action to send a message that Chinese shipping will be protected.
The deployment of two frigates and a supply ship represent the first time China has staged a potential combat mission beyond its territorial waters in centuries.
The De Xin Hai is the first mainland ship to be hijacked since Chinese warships joined international anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa in January. Pirates attacked the ship 10 days ago northeast of the Seychelles. It is one of seven now moored off pirate strongholds on Somalia's east coast, some having been detained since April.
One previous successful negotiation involved the mainland fishing boat Tianyu No8, which was released with its 24 crew members in February after being held for three months.
Those talks involved the Foreign and Agriculture ministries and the Tianjin municipal government. With China having no diplomatic representation inside the failed state of Somalia, Chinese embassies in neighbouring Djibouti and Ethiopia handled matters.