China Plans to Aid in Fight Against Somali Pirates

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 18, 2008

BEIJING, Dec. 18 -- As international forces rescued a hijacked Chinese ship from Somali pirates Wednesday, state news media reports said China planned to send a naval fleet to fight pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters.

An unnamed military source told the state-run English-language China Daily that the operation would be "a significant peacekeeping mission," but a National Defense University professor of military strategy told The Washington Post it would be the first time China has taken part in a "battle task."

"It is also a very good opportunity to rehearse sea rescue tasks and telecommunication with other military forces," said the professor, who is also a senior figure in the navy and asked to be identified only by his surname, Zhang. "Although we've attended U.N. peacekeeping tasks before, we were not involved in military actions. This is the first time China is taking part in a battle task."

Piracy off Somalia has increased shipping insurance costs, forced ships onto roundabout routes and sparked international alarm. Nearly 400 people and 19 ships are being held for ransom along the Somali coast, according to the Kenya-based East African Seafarers Assistance Program, prompting international anti-piracy operations and a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing states to "undertake all necessary measures" to stop the pirates.

On Tuesday, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister He Yafei said China was "seriously considering" sending naval ships to the Gulf of Aden, which is a link between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The next day, the Chinese cargo ship Zhenhua 4 was seized by pirates. The 30 Chinese sailors on board managed to lock themselves in their cabins and radio for help. A multilateral force with helicopters hovered over the ship, firing at the pirates, and succeeded in rescuing the ship several hours later, state news media said.

Six Chinese ships have been attacked by pirates, prompting China to step in and defend its interests, Zhang said, adding that two destroyers would be sent.

A Chinese journalist told the state-run Global Times newspaper Tuesday that the operation is expected to last three months. The two destroyers and a depot ship will leave Sanya port after Christmas, the Global Times reported Thursday. The first phase of the operation is expected to last three months.

"Our future military cooperation with other countries will still be limited to attacking pirates and terrorists or non-battle tasks such as medical service and rescue work," Zhang said. "Before, China didn't have an externally oriented economy, so the Chinese navy just needed to stay in Chinese waters. Now, the externally oriented economy has developed so well, the sea interests of China have expanded to other places, so the power of the Chinese navy should reach those places, too."

Researcher Zhang Jie contributed to this report.

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