Ships from the Chinese Navy patrolling the seas on anti-piracy missions in the Gulf of Aden area for over a year now could not go to the rescue of De Xin Hai a Chinese bulk carrier with a Chinese crew of 25 members transporting coal which was hijacked by a group of Somali pirates 400 miles North-East of Seychelles and taken to the waters off Somalia in October last.
2. Their demand for ransom was initially resisted by the Chinese. How can China, which views itself as a power on par with the US, pay ransom? The Government-controlled media in China gave its people very few details of the hijacking, but those, who had been following the incident through the Internet, were certain that the Chinese would not cave in. They were hoping and expecting that the Chinese Navy would emulate the example of the US, Dutch and French Navies, whose special forces had rescued their seamen from the custody of the pirates during 2009. The US Navy’s Sea Air Land Commandoes (SEAL) had rescued the master of the US ship “Maersk Alabama” in an operation on April 4,2009. There were similar instances of intervention by the naval special forces of Holland and France.
3. Independent experts outside China were not hopeful of the Chinese Navy’s ability to intervene. They were certain that the Chinese Navy would ultimately have to cave in to the demands of the Somali pirates. The Jamestown Foundation, a prestigious American think-tank based in Washington DC, had predicted that China was unlikely to use its special forces in a rescue operation because it had too few ships in the area and its ships had no combat experience, especially in dealing with pirates. Moreover, there was the danger that while a botched-up operation could embarrass the Chinese Navy, a successful operation might worry Asian nations who have territorial disputes with China.
4. While Chinese Internet surfers and bloggers were eagerly waiting for news of the rescue of the Chinese bulk carrier and its crew by the Chinese Navy vessels patrolling in the area, news came from international shipping circles, which monitor the activities of the pirates, that the Chinese authorities managed to get back their ship and crew from the pirates on December 28,2009, after air-dropping sacks containing US $ four million on board the ship from a helicopter. The pirates collected the money and left the hijacked ship, which is now reported to be on its way back home.
5. The Chinese Government has so far not told its people that it paid a ransom in order to get the ship and its crew back. The “China Daily” News merely told its readers that the ship had been “successfully rescued”.
6. Their embarrassing experience with this incident has brought home to the Chinese the limitations from which their Navy suffers. One of the lessons mentioned by their experts is that the Chinese Navy could not hope to be the equal of its US counterparts unless it had overseas bases in areas of concern. Another lesson is that their ships on anti-piracy patrol feel handicapped due to the absence of a base in the area being patrolled by them where they can go periodically for refueling and re-stocking and for rest and recreation for their crew.
7. In an interview over the State radio on December 28,2009, Rear Admiral Yin Zhou, an expert of the Chinese Navy, said: “"I believe that a relatively stable, relatively solid base for resupply and repair would be appropriate. Such a base would provide a steady source of fresh food, along with facilities for communications, ship repair and recreation. Any definite decision to establish such a base would have to be taken by the Communist Party. Supplying and maintaining the ( Chinese) fleet off Somalia was challenging without such a base. Other nations were unlikely to object.”
8. He did not say where such a base could be located, if the Party ultimately accepted his suggestion. China already has two options before it---- Gwadar on the Balochistan coast in Pakistan and Hambantota in Sri Lanka. It has already constructed for Pakistan a commercial port at Gwadar, which is now being managed by a Singapore company. During a second stage, it is proposed to construct a naval base for the Pakistan Navy there. This could serve the purposes of the Chinese Navy too. The Chinese are helping Sri Lanka in the construction of a modern commercial port at Hambantota. There is presently no talk of a naval base there.
9. Pakistan would be only too happy to respond positively to any Chinese request for naval base facilities at Gwadar. The only inhibiting factor for China would be the bad security situation in the area due to the ongoing Baloch freedom struggle. From the point of view of security, Hambantota could be ideal for the Chinese, but would the Sri Lankan Government agree to any such proposal if it comes from Beijing? (31-12-09)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )