Beijing proposes bigger naval role to curb piracy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 November, 2009, 12:00am

China's proposals to strengthen international anti-piracy escort missions around the Horn of Africa would almost certainly demand expanded naval deployments, according to Western military officials.

Chinese officials yesterday outlined proposals to provide individual navies with specific sectors of responsibility during a two-day closed-door conference in Beijing, according to officials providing briefings on developments.

Currently, navies co-ordinate escorts across specified protected sea lanes.

'We are welcoming China's ideas to improve co-ordination and co-operation, but there is still much to discuss ... it is clear that some proposals would involve more commitments and probably more navies being involved,' one official said.

'Certainly it is clear that we are a long way from defeating the pirates.'

The hastily arranged conference comes as negotiations continue to free 25 mainland crew aboard a Chinese bulk carrier hijacked last month in the Indian Ocean.

The De Xin Hai was the first Chinese vessel to be hijacked since the arrival off Somalia of a People's Liberation Army naval task force in January. The deployment marked China's first foray into possible conflict beyond its home waters in centuries.

'It is clear that the incident has shaken Beijing's leadership up ... and they are under pressure to be seen to be doing something proactive, even if they are struggling to free the crew,' said one Asian military attach? monitoring the meeting.

'It is hard to tell at this point whether they will get a result, but at least they are being seen to show leadership. If further Chinese ships are attacked, that will be very important domestically.'

Foreign Ministry officials have confirmed the presence of officials from Japan, India, Russia, the European Union and Nato at the meeting but have yet to announce progress.

Commander John Harbour, spokesman for the EU's task force off Somalia, said he was unable to discuss any proposals to expand deployments, or say whether they were needed.

'I could say that the EU would welcome any nation that wanted to contribute its navy to the effort ... when you consider the volume of merchant ships that flows through the area, it needs considerable international effort to successfully fight piracy,' he said.

Some 40-odd nations are involved in anti-piracy patrols across more than 5,000 square nautical miles of ocean surrounding the Horn of Africa.

The area covers key approaches to the Gulf of Aden, which leads to the Red Sea and Suez Canal - vital choke-points on the sea lanes that link Asia to Europe.