Is the Chinese Navy Reluctant to Use Force Against Somali Pirates?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 39

The Chinese Missile Frigate Zhoushan docks in Zhejiang province after returning from the Gulf of Aden.

The Somali pirates have once again warned that they could kill the crew of the Chinese flagged merchant vessel De Xin Hai if a military action is launched to rescue them.  Speaking from the ship by phone, a pirate cautioned, “We know [the Chinese] have arrayed their warships in Somalia waters to attack us… We are telling them not to gamble with the lives of the Chinese teenagers in our hands. Honestly, we will kill if we are attacked" (, December 1).

De Xin Hai is currently in the custody of pirates and anchored off the Somali coast. The vessel was hijacked in mid-October, 550 miles north-east of the Seychelles. The pirates have demanded $3.5 million as ransom. The vessel is operated by Qingdao Ocean Shipping Co. and at the time of its hijacking the vessel was carrying 76,000 tons of coal from South Africa to India. Soon after the vessel’s seizure, Ma Zhaoxu, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, announced that Beijing had begun "all-out efforts to rescue the hijacked ship and personnel," (Guardian, October 20), but the vessel continues to be in the custody of the pirates.

In the past, several Chinese-flagged vessels have been attacked; Somali pirates attacked seven Chinese ships between January and November 2008 alone (Xinhua, January 7). In one instance, Zhenhua 4, owned by the Shanghai-based Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. successfully repelled a pirate attack assisted by a helicopter belonging to the multinational forces. The crew used deck fire hoses and improvised Molotov cocktails to ward off the pirates (, December 19, 2008). On their return to China, the crew was awarded US$10,000 each by the company to acknowledge their heroic response.

Since January 2009, People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) ships have maintained a continuous presence in the Gulf of Aden, with each flotilla being deployed for three months (see Terrorism Monitor, April 24). The PLAN force operates independently of the multinational forces in the region. The fourth flotilla is composed of the missile frigates Ma’anshan and Wenzhou (which replaced the Zhoushan and Xuzhou in November) and Qiandaohu, a supply ship already deployed to the region (Xinhua, October 31). So far PLAN ships have escorted over 1100 vessels under different flags, including Taiwanese ships.

There are 30 warships from 18 countries currently engaged in multinational counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden-Somalia coast-Indian Ocean region (, November 23). A number of these nations have pursued an aggressive policy in dealing with Somali pirates, including China’s neighbor and continental rival, India. In November 2008, INS Tabar, an Indian warship deployed in the Gulf of Aden for counter-piracy operations, destroyed a pirate mother-ship after the latter ignored warnings and threatened to fire back at the warship. More recently, INS Godavari, an Indian guided missile ship, deployed a helicopter with marine commandoes to prevent the hijacking of a Norwegian ship (Hindustan Times, December 7; Times of India, December 8).

French and American ships have also dealt forcefully with hijackers posing a threat to the safety of their nationals. In one operation, French commandoes attacked the hijacked yacht S/Y Tanit and rescued four French hostages. Three pirates were arrested, but the skipper of the yacht was killed in the crossfire (Independent, April 11). Soon afterwards, U.S. snipers successfully killed three Somali pirates and rescued the master of the hijacked Maersk Alabama from a lifeboat in which he had been held for five days (, April 13).  In response, the pirates threatened retaliatory action and announced on the radio, “If they have started killing us, we have decided to take revenge and kill any American or French crew or passenger members of ships we capture fishing in our seas" (Shabelle Media Network, April 14).

The hijacking of De Xin Hai has presented Beijing with a dilemma. There have been calls by relatives of the hostages urging the government to rescue the crew, but Beijing does not appear to be keen on engaging in daring rescue operations as conducted by the French and U.S. navies (Peoples Daily Online, October 22).  Instead, it prefers negotiations and payment of ransom for the release of hostage crew and ship, a common practice in dealing with the pirates of the Gulf of Aden.

There are at least four reasons that preclude use of force by Beijing:

• China respects international law and does not wish to enter into foreign territorial waters without prior consent of the legitimate government in Somalia.

• The current force level in the region is comprised of three vessels, including two missile frigates and a supply ship with helicopters. This force is woefully inadequate for a rescue mission in alien territory and is conspicuously deficient in intelligence, surveillance capability and combat air cover.

• The PLAN does not have any combat experience, particularly in anti-piracy operations. If the operation is unsuccessful, it would reflect poorly on its combat capability and undermine its long distance sustained deployment.

• Any anti-piracy combat operation could send discomforting signals to Southeast Asian countries, particularly those that have boundary disputes with China in the South China Sea. They are bound to view the Chinese decision to use force with concern, knowing full well that the hijacked vessel could be released by paying a negotiated ransom.

Notwithstanding these issues, China has reiterated its commitment to fight piracy off Somalia and called for greater cooperation among the multinational forces. This is also a sign of a "proactive" Chinese role in Indian Ocean security architecture.