China’s concerns over developments in the Gulf of Aden area, which could affect the movement of oil to China from West Asia and Africa, are increasingly evident. These concerns have been triggered off by three developments.
2.The first was the seajacking of a Chinese ship transporting coal to China by a group of Somali pirates in October,2009, off Seychelles. The pirates managed to take the ship to the waters off Somalia and made demands for ransom. After concluding that their anti-piracy naval patrol in the area would not be in a position to intervene to have the ship and its 25-member Chinese crew rescued from the pirates, the company owning the ship made a deal with the pirates, allegedly paid the ransom and got the ship and its crew back on December 28,2009.
3.The second was the escalation in the activities of pro-Al Qaeda elements in Somalia. The Chinese recognize that the US is the only country in a position to deal with Al Qaeda in Somalia and media comments in China expressed their disappointment and concern that the US, in its preoccupation with countering the activities of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in the Af-Pak region, was not paying adequate attention to the increasing activities of Al Qaeda in Somalia.
4.In the Chinese perception, Al Qaeda activities in Somalia, if not controlled, could ultimately affect sealane security and jeopardize the movement of oil supplies to China. The sustained activities of the Somali pirates despite the deployment of anti-piracy patrols by the navies of many countries including those of the NATO, India, China and Japan show that while these patrols might have been tactically successful in dealing with certain individual incidents, they have not been strategically effective in dealing with the problem of piracy in an Al Qaeda infested region.
5.The third is the emergence of Al Qaeda in Yemen as a second major source of threat to peace and security after Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden based in North Waziristan in Pakistan. While there is a broad convergence of views among counter-terrorism analysts and experts of different countries on the need for a more comprehensive strategy to deal with the escalation in the activities of Al Qaeda, the trigger for action is not the same. In the case of the US, the trigger is Washington’s concerns over threats to the security of the US Homeland from the mushrooming Al Qaedas. In the case of Beijing, the trigger is its concerns over possible future threats to sealane security from the Al Qaedas of the region, which would directly impact on the Chinese economy.
6.There is a tacit recognition among Chinese experts that the Chinese Navy by itself will not be in a position to deal with the looming threat to maritime security from a mix of escalating piracy and escalating activities of Al Qaeda. The inability of the Chinese anti-piracy patrols to go to the rescue of the seajacked ship brought out the capacity limitations of the Chinese Navy. This gave rise to a debate on the need for a Chinese naval base in the region to give a greater thrust to the anti-piracy patrols and give them a longer staying power.
7.The debate was triggered off by surprisingly outspoken comments by retired Admiral Yin Zhuo, who is now stated to be a senior researcher at the Navy’s Equipment Research Centre, in an interview on December 29, 2009, a day after the Chinese company allegedly paid the ransom to the Somali pirates and got its ship back. He was quoted as saying in his interview:: “Setting up a base would bolster China's long-term participation in the operations. We are not saying we need our navy everywhere in order to fulfill our international commitments. We are saying to fulfill our international commitments, we need to strengthen our supply capacity. China has sent four flotillas to the region since the end of last year, with the first escort fleet spending 124 days at sea without docking, a length of time that added to the challenges of the operation. Since then, Chinese vessels have docked at a French naval base for supplies. The United States, the European Union and Japan have supply bases in the region. If China establishes a similar long-term supply base, I believe that the nations in the region and the other countries involved with the (anti-pirate) escorts would understand."
8.The sensation caused by his remarks led to an attempt by Beijing to play down the significance of what he said and remove the impression that his advocacy of an overseas naval base had the support of the party and the Government. In comments quoted by the "China Daily" on January 1,2010,a Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman said: "China will stick to its current supply regime to support anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. Some countries have set up overseas supply bases (but) the Chinese fleet is currently supplied at sea and through regular docking (in the Gulf of Aden region)."
9. Interestingly, side by side with the denial of the Defence Ministry, the "China Daily" carried the comments of some experts, which were not categorical in ruling out the option of an overseas naval base. Some of these comments are given below:
(a). Jin Canrong, an international relations expert at the Renmin University: Beijing has yet to seriously consider setting up a permanent overseas supply base. It's unnecessary to "play up the personal view of Yin, a retired admiral". However, the possibility of setting up such a base should not be ruled out. "China's national interests have extended beyond its border, so it's necessary to have strong ability to protect them."
(b).Li Jie, a senior colonel and researcher with the Chinese Navy's Military Academy: Beijing should consider setting up an overseas supply base "in the long run". "For many other countries, it's a common way of ensuring naval supplies." Such a base, "not a military one", would not only ease supply but also provide a venue for naval personnel to take a break. But an overseas base could only be set up "within the UN framework and concurrence of surrounding countries".
10. The possibility of linkages eventually developing between the mushrooming Al Qaedas and the Somali pirates----if such linkages do not already exist--- has also been reflected in recent comments of Chinese non-Governmental analysts.
11. The perception that the US focus in the "war" against Al Qaedas tends to be Homeland security related and that the protection of sealane security from the new generations of Al Qaedas and pirate gangs has not been receiving adequate attention has much validity. Possible future threats to sealane security from developments in the Somalia-Yemen region should be a matter of common concern to India, China and Japan, whose economies largely depend on energy supplies coming from or transiting this region.
12. Last year, I had proposed an India-China-Japan trialogue on maritime security issues. The need for such a trialogue has assumed greater importance and urgency in the light of the recent developments. India should take the initiative in the matter. (13-1-2010)
( 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: email@example.com )