Cosco Shipping will spend about US$12 million on armed guards and other anti-piracy measures this year to protect its ships and crews against the threat of piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.
The move signifies a change in attitude by both mainland and Hong Kong shipowners, who in recent months have shown a greater willingness to use armed force against threats when sailing through pirate-infested waters.
Pacific Basin Shipping, Wah Kwong Maritime Transport and Valles Steamship are among the leading Hong Kong owners that have expressed the view that armed guards have and would be used on board if necessary.
Shanghai-listed Cosco Shipping, which owns around 80 ships - 20 registered in Hong Kong and 60 on the mainland and elsewhere - said the budget included the cost of bullet-proof vests for all crew and on-board equipment to both deter attacks and prevent pirates from taking control of vessels if they do board.
Guo Jin, Cosco Shipping's chief operating officer, said if the firm's ships are unable to take alternative routes, such as via the Cape of Good Hope, and had to travel through high-risk areas, 'then we will take some measures to defend ourselves ... Our ships are relatively small, they are not so fast - about 15 knots - so we have to employ armed security.'
Guo said the use of armed guards was a 'difficult issue. We don't want to injure people ... but we have to protect ourselves.'
So far, the company has reported only one incident on its ships, in which an approaching skiff retreated when a guard fired a warning shot at a range of about 500 metres.
Guo said the company favoured British security companies that use former Special Air Service troops or Royal Marines.
'We are helping British employment,' he quipped.
Jan Rindbo, chief operating officer of Pacific Basin Shipping, said there were 'relatively few times every year' that its ships passed through high-risk piracy areas in the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.
He said: 'For every transit we do a risk assessment to determine appropriate anti-piracy measures in accordance with (shipping industry) best management practices'.
Rindbo said that aside from 'hardening' the ships with barbed wire and other equipment 'we are now also open to use armed guards on a case-by-case basis subject to our risk assessment.
'The cost of these anti-piracy measures can amount to over US$200,000 per transit, but this is largely factored into the freight rate and thus passed on to the charterers,' he said.
Tim Huxley, chief executive of tanker and bulk carrier operator Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings, indicated the company had and would use armed guards.
'While placing armed guards on board is not a solution to the piracy problem in itself, they have proved invaluable as a further deterrent and are part of our plan to make our ships less attractive to attackers. Increasingly, charterers are willing to bear the cost of these security measures and so ultimately this is going to be passed on to the consumer.'
David Koo, head of tanker owner Valles Steamship, had been opposed to the use of armed guards because he thought it would escalate violence and that piracy needed a government solution.
But Koo, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Shipowners' Association, said the industry had changed its view and was leaving it up to individual shipowners to decide whether to use armed guards. He said the use of armed security personnel 'gave peace of mind for the crew'.
He added that while Valles ships had yet to cross the Indian Ocean 'we would probably use armed guards' when it did so.
Two Tung-family shipping companies, Orient Overseas Container Line and bulk company Island Navigation, declined to answer questions about their use of armed guards.
Roger Tupper, director of the Marine Department, said the department had advised shipowners, ship managers and operators with Hong Kong flagged vessels earlier this year about the use of security personnel and on-board weapons.
In the two-page advisory, the Marine Department said it 'encourages the carriage of experienced security consultants to assist in following best management practice requirements as these are welcomed by the crew and give confidence to all onboard in case of pirate attacks'.
The department did not encourage the use of weapons, but dispensation would be given if the owners, operators and managers met six requirements, including vetting of the security consultants.