From South China Morning Post.
The People’s Liberation Army warships steaming to intercept a hijacked mainland bulk carrier in the Indian Ocean are sailing into uncharted waters in an operation laced with military and diplomatic uncertainty.
The showdown with Somali pirates holding 25 mainland crew hostage looms as a test not just of the PLA navy’s capabilities and leadership, but also its ability to co-operate with rival international forces under the global spotlight. It is China’s first potential combat mission in centuries beyond its territorial waters.
Military analysts and scholars warned against staging a hasty show of force to smash a tiny but cunning foe. Somali pirates have increasingly plagued international shipping lanes in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean off the Horn of Africa.
The two frigates and supply ship that make up China’s anti-piracy task force are expected to close in on the De Xin Hai over the next day or so.
Foreign Ministry officials on Tuesday vowed to take all efforts to rescue the crew. The pirates said they would execute them if any attempt to board the ship was made. Ministry of Transport officials said yesterday that the safety of the crew remained the first priority, according to China News Service.
Chinese authorities were reluctant to reveal details of its rescue plans. The Foreign Ministry has not yet responded to requests for comment on the pirates’ threat to kill Chinese sailors.
“This is not some domestic situation where you used a quick show of force to send a blunt message … I would be very surprised if China went in boots-and-all, despite the sabre-rattling,” said Dr Sam Bateman, a maritime security scholar at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies.
“Boarding ships under force is a very dangerous game, particularly if you want to save hostages. And in this situation, we can see China has several international factors to consider.
“China has never staged an operation under pressure so far from home, so it will be a big test of how its command structure functions, and how they co-operate with other navies.
“National pride could push some sort of tough response, but I think wiser heads will prevail.”
Despite worldwide attention on the hijacking, official media have so far played down news about the incident.
China Central Television has not mentioned the hijacking in its newscasts. Many newspapers have printed lengthy reports on the incident, but in less prominent positions. Many news portals, though not Xinhuanet, gave the hijacking prominent coverage.
The De Xin Hai, which is less than two years old, was carrying 76,000 tonnes of coal from South Africa to India when it was hijacked on Monday. Nothing has been heard from it since.
The vessel is owned by Qingdao Ocean Shipping but insured in London, and its cargo is also owned internationally, which could complicate any negotiations.
Roger Middleton, who studies Somali piracy at the independent London-based think tank Chatham House, said the pirates realised ships’ crews were a stronger bargaining chip than any vessel or its cargo, and negotiated as kidnappers seeking ransoms.
“The safest thing in terms of the crew is to negotiate … It may not represent the long-term solution to this problem, but if the crew really is the priority in any specific case, it has been shown to work. Any other option risks losing the lives of crew and military personnel … You have ask in each case whether such costs are worth it.”
Typically, Somali pirates demand US$10 million from shipowners but swiftly reduce their claims, often settling for a million. Six ships are currently in the pirates’ hands.
Faced with such uncertainties, the PLA task force could be expected initially to shadow the ship once they find it, and seek to open communications and obtain visible proof the crew were safe, Middleton said.
A Shanghai-based retired PLA senior colonel said military options ranged from deploying helicopters to using divers to sneak aboard. However, there was no reliable military option, he said.
Even a small band of pirates aboard a ship can cause problems for fully armed navies. Helicopters are vulnerable to sudden bursts of automatic weapon fire and landing from small boats can be tricky. If the lives of a crew are the first priority, there is limited room to bomb or fire upon a ship before landing.
The US risked military action in April to rescue an American captain held by pirates on the lifeboat of the Maersk Alabama. Navy Seal snipers killed the three pirates on board before rescuing Captain Richard Phillips. Few US ships have been attacked since.
Anthony Wong Dong, president of the International Military Association in Macau, said the hijacking had exposed weaknesses in the PLA’s emerging ocean-going combat capabilities.
“Dealing with … the Somali pirates has been a headache … for all countries’ navies, including the US.
“With there being so many hostages on board, the PLA might need to send an amphibious assault ship to support its inferior battle group. However, I think it’s impractical, as it will take more than one week to get there since China has no overseas military bases like the US,” Wong said.
He said Beijing needed to protect the safety of the crew, given the tens of thousands of mainland workers now employed by Chinese interests in the region.
“If Beijing fails to save the Chinese crew, it will set a bad example for Chinese labourers who are working in the energy-rich countries,” Wong said.