China has not ruled out military action to rescue the crew of a coal ship hijacked by Somali pirates, although it is also pursuing negotiations, a Chinese military spokesperson said.
A successful rescue was possible, as long as the foreign militaries involved in anti-piracy operations in the area cooperated, said major general Qian Lihua, director of the foreign affairs office of the Ministry of Defense.
“There is some difficulty in resolving this issue,” Qian told reporters at a conference on US-China relations.
“Once a ship or its crew is hijacked and the crew taken hostage, rescuing them requires much time and effort. As for the means applied, whether it is military means, or negotiations, that will depend on developments.”
The vessel, the De Xin Hai with a crew of 25 on board, was hijacked on Monday some 700 nautical miles east of Somalia.
Some Chinese media outlets have been pushing for a quick response before the ship reaches port, but a military affairs scholar said diplomacy was preferrable to an intervention.
“On the high sea, the armed forces have the right to stop any illegal activities like hijacking,” the China Daily quoted Zhao Xiaozhuo, a military expert for China’s Academy of Military Science, as saying.
“But if the pirates get on the land, the Chinese navy cannot make operations in Somalia as it is a sovereign state,” he added.
Pirate sources had told Reuters the De Xin Hai would be taken to one of two pirate strongholds on the Somali coast. They have threatened to kill the crew if a rescue is attempted.
Three Chinese warships that accompany merchant shipping convoys through the Gulf of Aden are far away from the site where the De Xin Hai was hijacked, north of the Seychelles and about 700 nautical miles from the Somali coast.
China plans to organize a meeting in Beijing involving all the countries involved in anti-piracy off the Somali coast, Qian said, without giving a timeframe.
The meeting was intended to clarify areas of responsibility on the sea, and to improve coordination, he said.
Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden since the turn of the year and have operated convoys as well as setting up and monitoring a transit corridor for ships to pass through vulnerable points.
But their forces have been stretched over the vast expanses of water including the Indian Ocean, leaving vessels vulnerable. Somali pirate gangs have caused havoc in the waterways linking Europe to Asia this year, and have made millions of dollars in ransom payments.