China should get bigger role in piracy fight

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 December, 2009, 12:00am

China remains tight-lipped about how a coal ship and its 25 crew were freed from Somali pirates yesterday. A ransom was reportedly paid, as the kidnappers claim and as has happened in previous hijackings, or maybe a rescue operation took place, as the Foreign Ministry says. Irrespective of what transpired, it is now clear that the deployment of three Chinese warships to the Gulf of Aden to join an international task force to fight the scourge is not nearly enough to keep shipping routes safe. Maritime nations need to substantially increase their naval patrols and there is a strong case for China to take the lead.

Doing so could make an important contribution to national and international security. The gulf is a vital shipping lane linking Asia with the Middle East, Europe and the Americas. About 20,000 ships pass through its waters each year; among them are tankers carrying 12 per cent of the global trade in oil. The ships are a magnet for pirates on Somalia's coast, who last year took in an estimated US$30 million in ransoms. China accounts for a big proportion of global seaborne trade. One in 10 cargo ships are either owned in Hong Kong, or registered or managed here. About 80 per cent of the oil that fuels China's industrial growth passes through the Indian Ocean. For the sake of development, it is crucial the pirates are defeated.

Obviously this is easier said than done. Somalia has been wracked by civil war since 1991 and is lawless and unstable. It will remain so until there is a concerted international effort to end the conflict. Until then, its people will turn to whatever means they see fit for income; with ever-higher ransoms for ships being demanded and met, piracy is by far the most lucrative. This time the pirates said they were given US$4 million for the release of the Chinese ship the De Xin Hai and its crew. With such rewards, it is not surprising they have become increasingly brazen. So far, it seems that the patrols of navy vessels from a range of nations has had a limited impact. If anything, the pirates appear to be even more audacious; the De Xin Hai was taken 700 nautical miles off the Somali coast.

Maritime organisations have told ship owners to improve security. There is better co-operation and co-ordination among shipping operators and governments. But the Indian Ocean is vast and not easily policed. China, eager to prove that its rise is peaceful, has a perfect opportunity to put rhetoric into action. The defence budget has been rising by double digits for two decades. A large chunk of the spending has gone towards modernisation and expansion of the navy - a development that is being watched with trepidation by many in the region and the US. There would be less concern if some of the vessels were deployed for the global good. Protecting shipping routes from pirates is an obvious such use. It would also be realistic and useful training for a navy with global ambitions. China's military growth is causing disquiet, but there is nothing political about deployment to defeat pirates. A reassuring signal would be sent that the nation is willing to participate in joint international security operations in a non-threatening, co-operative way. Apart from the practical contribution to freedom of navigation, it would also serve as a valuable public relations exercise.

Beijing has already indicated that it wants to play a bigger role. It formally presented a proposal last month to co-chair meetings of the international task force set up to fight the pirates. Fellow members from the European Union and Nato countries would do well to grant the wish; China has much to offer. Success would be a catalyst for a new Chinese activism in anti-piracy operations. Piracy needs to become much more difficult and dangerous for the pirates. Now, they clearly calculate they have more to gain than lose. Ship owners and maritime groups must play their part. But the key to ending piracy is in the hands of governments and the UN. In concert with other navies, a bigger Chinese deployment could make a difference.