People's Liberation Army naval officials have told their international peers they must wait for 'political approval' to mount a historic expansion of China's role in the fight against piracy off the Horn of Africa by leading co-ordination efforts. Despite Nato, European navies and the US-led Combined Maritime Forces all agreeing months ago to an unprecedented Chinese request to chair regular sessions of the so-called Shade grouping, Chinese naval delegates have had to ask for patience. A meeting of Shade - or Shared Awareness and Deconfliction - earlier this month opened with a statement from the chairman, a Nato official, welcoming China's growing role, but PLA delegates were unable to respond with any specifics. 'We were asked to be patient ... that the Chinese side needed a bit more time before they would be ready,' one senior official close to the meeting said. 'They said they were still waiting for political approval. They did not elaborate, and given the special nature of this kind of co-operation, we did not press them for details.' China surprised the international military community when it formally asked to chair the Shade sessions - usually headed by the EU, Nato or the CMF - in November. It even invited key navies involved in policing vital sea lanes of the Indian Ocean to Beijing for a one-off planning meeting. Its deployment of three warships since December 2008 to join the 40-odd nations fighting Somali pirates was already considered unprecedented for the traditionally secretive and insular PLA, and the request was widely seen as a historic first step into international military diplomacy. 'We are still prepared to cut China some slack here,' another naval officer involved in the Shade discussions said. 'Everyone understands they are making a big step, and no one wants to push them too hard at this point. If they can be ready soon, great.' China's request came weeks after Somali pirates had captured a mainland coal carrier, the De Xin Hai, in the Indian Ocean. It was the first hijacking since Beijing had sent its warships to the area. The Cosco-owned ship and its crew were eventually released from a Somali pirate lair in late December after the payment of a US$3.5 million ransom. News of the delay has sparked speculation in naval and diplomatic circles over what is holding China up. Some fear it could be a problem within the powerful Central Military Commission, the Communist Party's military oversight body headed by President Hu Jintao . Others believe PLA officials running the Indian Ocean deployment are struggling with technical aspects such as command and control issues, intelligence evaluation and communications - problems that would be exposed if they took a greater role. To chair Shade, China has agreed to deploy a warship to patrol directly with other navies inside the so-called International Recommended Transit Corridor. Shade seeks to protect ships entering the strategic Gulf of Aden - a top hunting ground for Somali pirates. Currently its ships patrol outside the corridor, escorting convoys of mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwanese commercial ships. While PLA vessels stay in close touch with other naval task forces, they are forced to work in much closer quarters once inside the corridor. 'We know command and control issues are still big problems for the PLA, and they are taking a very cautious approach to the fight against piracy,' said Gary Li, a specialist on the Chinese military at the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies. 'It is likely they are also still very worried about revealing too much about the way they operate ... That remains a big question for many in the PLA leadership.' But one PLA strategist said its leadership remained committed to playing an expanding role in the fight against piracy. 'We realise this is a very great opportunity to learn and work closely with other countries ... It is a very good thing for us to be doing, and the PLA leadership is determined to play an important part,' he said. China's deployment of warships to the Horn of Africa represented the first time in centuries that Chinese warships had sailed to a zone of potential conflict beyond home waters. Sea lanes around the horn are part of the main shipping routes that link East Asia with Europe and the Middle East - sea lanes through which most of China's oil imports pass.