The perfect fight?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 March, 2010, 12:00am

With ransoms topping US$7 million, it is worth looking at the hard realities underlying China's involvement in the fight against piracy off the Horn of Africa. When Beijing dispatched two warships and a tanker to the Gulf of Aden in December 2008, there was a marked touch of theatre as China trumpeted the reach of its growing navy for maximum domestic propaganda effect.

More than a year on, however, the pirates are growing ever more brazen, China's engagement in the fight against them is quietly deepening and the strategic imperatives driving the mission are ever clearer.

If Beijing is indeed using the mission to quietly expand its footprint in the Indian Ocean in a way that will lead to the natural development of a network of friendly ports, if not full bases, then it has picked the perfect fight.

Piracy off Somalia looks set to get a lot worse before its gets better, with the pirates apparently well aware of their perfect little business niche. Using captured vessels as mother ships, they can now reach far out into the Indian Ocean beyond the Seychelles Islands, threatening a wider range of shipping routes and forcing the 40-odd navies arrayed against them to patrol ever-greater swathes of ocean.

They appear to know that, as long as they don't harm their hostages or mess around with terrorists, the international shipping community will continue to fund the status quo, having proved it can absorb the costs.

Their crimes now support a vast cottage industry of insurers, lawyers, security consultants and hostage negotiators. Ransoms, in fact, account for only an estimated quarter of the cost of a hijacking.

It says a lot about the intractability of the problem when an entirely logical approach now under consideration in Washington - stopping the payment of ransoms - is widely viewed as utterly impractical and even dangerous.

Naval insiders say their vast effort - a mission that encompasses Nato and European Union flotillas and the US-led Combined Maritime Force, as well as a diverse range of navies operating independently - is only, at best, going to make life harder for the pirates. It is almost certainly not going to be able to eradicate them. That, they say, has to be done on shore. And, given the violence and anarchy that pervade the failed state of Somalia, the international struggle to improve life there will take years to win.

In the vacuum, China has steadily broadened its unprecedented role into previously unthinkable realms of co-operation. As well as escorting convoys of mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwanese shipping, it is preparing to join other navies in patrolling the main transit corridor through the Gulf of Aden - a move that has seen China win approval to chair monthly co-ordination meetings.

Just last week, People's Liberation Army officials approached the EU to offer their ships to help protect vital World Food Programme shipments to Somalia. The task will routinely take Chinese ships far closer to the lawless Somali coast than they have ventured so far. While that carries more risks, it will also allow greater gathering of intelligence.

'We are seeing a big, big change,' said Gary Li, who researches the PLA for the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. 'Before, China's deployment seemed a symbolic gesture ... now they are getting much more involved and getting their hands dirty. They want to help solve this.'

The successful hijacking and two-month detention of the state-owned bulk carrier De Xin Hai late last year appeared to harden China's resolve while creating a potential public relations disaster.

Even nations suspicious of China's military ambitions can only stand back and officially welcome its involvement. Indian officials are privately rattled at the growing Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean but will find it difficult to raise these concerns formally. The struggle against piracy is too important.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent