When Somali pirates hijacked a Chinese fishing boat in the Indian Ocean last November, there was little that China could do. The government said it was assessing the situation and hoping for help from authorities in the region. Last week when pirates overpowered the crew of a Chinese bulk carrier 700 miles off the coast of Somalia, a Foreign Ministry spokesman pledged that China would make "an all-out effort to rescue the sailors and the ship."
What changed in a year? Since sending three warships to the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden in January, China is increasingly capable of defending its merchant vessels in the region. And the country is now more willing to display its growing military strength, as was demonstrated in the massive military parade held in Beijing on Oct.1 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic.
But having a military option this time around doesn't necessarily mean there's an easy solution. On Oct. 22 Foreign Ministry spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu said that a rescue operation was underway. Since then, the pirates who captured the De Xin Hai have moved the coal carrier to the coast of Somalia near the city of Hobyo, according to the European Union Naval Force Atalanta, which conducts patrols in the region. Thus far there has been no indication that any of the ship's 25 Chinese crew members have been harmed, says Commander John Harbour, spokesman for the E.U. effort. Moving the vessel from the high seas to the Somali coast will make any rescue efforts far more challenging. ""It's extremely difficult to on board a ship once it's sitting alongside the coast," says Harbour. "Undoubtedly [the pirates] have been reinforced. As the Americans have discovered, they can be pretty resourceful individuals. It would be a dangerous operation militarily."
With the ship anchored near a pirate enclave, the most likely outcome of the hijacking now is a negotiated settlement and possibly a ransom paid by the ship's owners, the China Ocean Shipping-owned Qingdao Ocean Shipping. (Estimates of ransom monies received by Somali pirates exceed $100 million.) But on Chinese web forums there are increasing calls for use of force. "Pay the ransom and get the hostages out first, to show the humanitarian spirit. Then we should deploy our soldiers to destroy the pirates and take back the ransom," wrote one commenter on a message board at the People's Daily website. "We can't let them take advantage of us Chinese." Some commenters described as a model the successful U.S. intervention in the hijacking of an American cargo ship in April, when Navy snipers shot three hijackers. "Just do what the Americans did," wrote one.
So far such calls have been limited to anonymous online postings, but they are indicative of the dilemma faced by China's leadership. The country has undergone a significant military modernization drive, with spending rising by double-digit annual percentage increases for nearly two decades. (The highest estimate of China's military spending for 2009 $130 billion is still less than half of the United States' $419 billion defense budget.) Chinese Navy officials have indicated they hope to build an aircraft carrier in the coming decade, which would give them a far greater ability to project force away from home.
How does China plan to use its growing power? That's a question frequently asked by U.S. military officials and foreign observers. Some say the existence of military strength becomes an argument to use it. "One of the problems you start having is when you have large, relatively capable militaries, there's the temptation to use [force]even though you're not prepared to," says Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "It's a sunk cost. You put so much money into it, then the temptation is there. Why aren't you using it? It starts to take on a life of its own...You might go down same route America has gone down in last 10 years: Military action is not the last resort, it's the only one."
For now China seems prepared to look for other options. It may be their only choice. A strike within Somalia's territorial waters would require far more international cooperation than an attack at sea. While China had two missile frigates in the region, they were more than a two-day sail from where the hijacking took place, says Yin Gang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of West Asian and African Studies. "I don't see [a military rescue] coming in the foreseeable future, because the Chinese army is far from being able to do that, despite what many people might think of the grandiose National Day parade," Yin says. "I hope in the future, the Chinese government can be more open in the disclosure of information. That way, the public would be better informed, and there would be less far-fetched speculations."
With reporting by Jessie Jiang