Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 02:06 | SYDNEY
Friday 08 Oct 2021 | 02:06 | SYDNEY

China joins the melodrama off Somalia

29 January 2009 08:48

Sam Bateman is a Senior Fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Counter-piracy operations off Somalia have turned into a strategic melodrama. Major world navies are engaging in noisy self-aggrandisement and trying to outdo each other. Robust UN resolutions have been passed, but despite all the rhetoric, piracy still occurs and root causes of the situation are not being addressed.

The USN has trumpeted the situation as a classic demonstration of the need for the Global Maritime Partnership (or the '1000-ship navy'). The European Union is using the situation to demonstrate solidarity on security issues. China, India and Russia are also involved and Japan and South Korea are planning to do so. As two US academics recently wrote, an enduring legacy of Somali piracy could be 'new navies on the high seas'.

Ironically, some countries (including China,  France and South Korea) that have sent warships to the area, or are contemplating doing so, continue to have vessels fishing illegally in Somalia’s fish rich EEZ – another form of Somali piracy! One would at least think these countries would have the decency to instruct their vessels to stop this illegal activity.

In an extreme act of melodrama, an Indian naval vessel sank a 'pirate ship' only to find that it was actually a Thai fishing vessel. Admittedly the vessel was in the hands of pirates, having been hijacked earlier. However, this and weak claims of self defence do not excuse the heavy-handed response that resulted in the death of most of the innocent Thai crew. Avoiding such an incident is the reason why Western navies have in place restrictive rules of engagement.

China has now found a role in the melodrama. It has sent warships to escort Chinese-flagged and -owned vessels through the area (including those of Hong Kong). Chinese willingness to include Taiwanese vessels met with a dark response in Taipei once the political implications were appreciated.

China has a clear interest in the security of shipping. It has the world’s largest national flag shipping fleet in terms of both ship numbers and deadweight tonnage (even more so when Hong Kong is included). Most Chinese-flag vessels are engaged domestically but this is balanced by the fact that about 55 per cent of Chinese-controlled shipping flies 'flags of convenience' (FOCs). Most of these vessels are large container ships, bulk carriers and tankers in international trade, including obviously through piracy-prone areas off the Horn of Africa.

Surprisingly, Chinese-flagged vessels have not figured prominently in attack statistics. The International Maritime Bureau reports that three Hong Kong flagged ships and one Chinese fishing vessel were attacked during 2008 while attempted attacks were made on four Chinese-flag vessels, two Hong Kong vessels and one Taiwanese. There were many actual and attempted attacks on FOC vessels, but it is not possible to ascertain how many were Chinese controlled.

There are rumours that China is reluctant to cooperate with other navies operating in the area. This is easy to understand. Politically, China would be reluctant to concede any tactical control over its warships to a British or American admiral, especially when presumably it can conduct its stated mission (ie. the escort of Chinese ships through high risk areas) on its own. Also, the Chinese would well appreciate that the best way to gain intelligence on a potential opponent’s weapons and sensors is for ships to operate together. An operational mission is very different to an artificial exercise, particularly of the rudimentary passage exercise type which the USN and PLA Navy engage in and during which more sensitive systems are switched off.

Australia has also joined the melodrama, but why not? It was an easy decision. Everyone else is getting in the act. The ship was in the region and had completed her original tasking. An operational mission was available that offered better training and experience than any exercise, and returning home early would have penalised personnel in financial terms.

It is truly surprising that piracy off the Horn of Africa has not been eradicated, given the amount of naval effort that is being expended in the area. It is even more surprising that the pirates are able to get away with such blatant acts as hijacking a ship on 12 November 2008 off Somaliland and taking her some 500 nautical miles to the port of Eyl on the East coast of Puntland, apparently without any interference from coalition forces.

Why have the navies not been more successful in getting rid of piracy? Legal issues and tight rules of engagement are obviously factors in restricting the operations of the Western navies. Presumably these navies would not deem the situation so serious that it justified death or injury to their personnel. Deterrence and protection that stops short of engaging in actual firefights are the real objectives. For similar reasons, shipowners and ship masters have been reluctant to accept armed guards onboard their ships despite pressure from private security companies.

The situation off Somalia is undeniably serious. Naval escorting and strict precautions taken by ships passing through the area will help to bring the situation under control. However, the lack of governance onshore is the root cause of the current situation. When that situation is corrected, piracy in the area will largely disappear. Naval vessels will then return to their home ports and navies will have lost a major cause celebre.