Counter-Piracy off the coast of Somalia is a story of success. Thanks to the concerted efforts of the international community, piracy is very much curbed at bay. According to the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), until November 2013, 1132 pirates have been detained and prosecuted in twenty countries. Only 50-52 hostages are still detained by the pirates. In the last one year and half, no successful hijacks were recorded since MV Smyrni, a Greek-registered tanker was hijacked on 12 May 2012.
So far 16 Chinese Task Forces have been sent non-stop to the Gulf of Aden since 26 December 2008 and each is composed of no less than three ships. These ships account for nearly half of the latest Chinese destroyers and frigates and replenishment ships from the three Chinese fleets of the PLA Navy. Such a strength and sustainability make the Chinese Task Force the largest among independent deployers. Until 22 December, 2013, the Chinese Task Forces have escorted 5460 ships including 2765 foreign ships. They have also escorted 7 ships of World Food Program in cooperation with the EU CTF- 465.
Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden is a turning point for the PLA Navy. It is the first time that the PLA Navy conducts military operations in the blue waters. It is also a familiarization with uncharted waters in the Indian Ocean which is getting increasingly important for China’s maritime trade. With more and more state of art ships including aircraft carriers anticipated to come into service, it will only be a given for the PLA Navy ships to cruise in the blue waters of the world oceans.
Counter-piracy is also a learning course for the PLA Navy and it is learning quickly. In spite of having the most sophisticated combat platforms and weapon systems among the three services, the PLA Navy, compared to the PLA Army and the PLA Air Force, has least experiences in fighting a real war. Therefore interacting with other 20 navies with frequent exchanges of visits, day-to-day intelligence sharing, exchange of observers joint exercises with Russia and U.S., coordination with other independent deployers and Task Forces of NATO, EU, CMF and maritime industrial organizations are critical and invaluable to the PLA Navy’s capacity-building. These are not the things that the PLA Navy could learn just through friendly port calls that it did before.
Counter-piracy also indicates how in future the PLA Navy could join in safeguarding sea lanes of communications(SLOCs). Maritime trade accounts for 90% of world transport and the security of SLOCs are pivotal to maritime trade. Of 20000-25000 ships transiting the Gulf of Aden each year, 1400-1600 are Chinese ships. In quite a few cases, the U.S. Navy, the Turkish Navy and the Indian Navy helped rescue hijacked Chinese vessels in the Indian Ocean because the Chinese Task Force was simply too far away. The Chinese Task Forces reciprocated with assistance in kind. Among the ships escorted by the PLA Navy in the last five years, 50% are foreign ships. The Chinese Task Forces have also escorted foreign ships released by pirates to safe destinations and prevented more than 40 ships from pirate attacks.
Incidents of piracy off the coast of Somalia is at historic low since 2006. But it could be reversible, too. Piracy is lucrative business. According to a report release by INTERPOL, UNODC and World Bank at the 15th plenary session of CGPCS in Djibouti, $339-413 million are estimated to have been paid in ransom for 179 hijacked ships from April 2005 to December 2012. Given the on-going instability in Somalia, piracy is still attractive for young men who cannot find legitimate means for making a living. Worst of all, even children were found in piracy incidents. Without the presence of the international navy, pirates would certainly come back. In fact at least 6 attacks have been reported this year and the Royal Danish Navy ship HDMS Esbern Snare arrested 9 pirates between Kenya and the Seychelles coast on 10 November .
On 18 November 2013, the UN Security Council issued Resolution 2125, authorizing a further period of twelve months for states and regional organizations to cooperate with Somali authorities in the fight against piracy and armed robbery at sea off the coast of Somalia. This clearly indicates that the “war” is not over and a comprehensive and collective response from the international community including China is still needed. And there are new missions waiting for the PLA Navy, too. According to Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Chinese Task Force will enter the Mediterranean to joint Russia in escorting chemical weapons of Syria to a US ship and monitor them to be demolished at the high sea. This is considered to be the first time that China, US and Russia cooperate militarily after the Second World War.
China has some titles today such as “the second largest economy,” “the largest exporter” and “the second largest importer.” Given China’s current situation, especially her connections with the rest of the world, it seems that history has tasked PLA Navy with more missions than PLA Army and PLA Air Force in the beginning of the 21 century. If indeed this is the case, the PLA Navy has a long way to go for its duo roles in the future: protecting China’s ever-growing maritime interests and fulfilling China’s increasing international responsibilities.
Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with Center of China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science.