Chinese fleet approaching Somali waters as French act against pirates

A Chinese surface group consisting of two modern destroyers and a replenishment vessel is fast approaching Somali territorial waters where it will join a growing international effort to fight piracy and armed robbery at sea.
The People`s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) task group departed a naval base on China`s southern Hainan Island on 26 December, with local press reporting it would take the ships 10 days to reach the Horn of Africa.
Rory Medcalf, director of the international security program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Australia notes this “is China’s first combat-ready ocean expedition since the journeys of the eunuch admiral Zheng He and his treasure ships in the early 1400s.
“It is a signal that after a six-century detour, China has arrived as a modern naval power,” he adds in today`s edition of Australia`s The Age newspaper
“Just as the war against the Barbary pirates [along the North African coast] in the early 1800s marked the start of America’s global rise, China’s imminent 2009 campaign against their Somali successors will be recorded as the moment when Beijing began to test itself as an active naval player.”
A Xinhua news agency journalist aboard the flagship, the Wuhan (DDG-169), reports the ships entered the Indian Ocean last week. A team of about 70 Naval Special Forces aboard the ships were described as conducting anti-piracy training with a ship-borne helicopter, from which they dropped by rope onto the deck to simulate landing on hijacked or pirate vessels.
Xinhua notes the Wuhan is a Type 052B multi-purpose missile destroyer built at the Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai in 2002. “With a displacement of 7,000 tonnes, DDG-169 Wuhan is equipped with 16 anti-ship missiles, 48 surface-to-air missiles, close-in weapons system and a helicopter.”
The Type 052C destroyer Haikou (DDG-171) is “the Navy’s latest destroyer model” and was built by the same yard as the Wuhan in 2003. It is equipped with China’s first generation of phased-array radar and a vertically launched long-range air defence missile system.
“Both the Wuhan and Haikou have a maximum speed of 30 knots,” Xinhua says.
The supply ship, Weishanhu (pennant number 887) is of the Qiandaohu class and was launched by Huangpu Shipyard in Guangzhou in 2003. “Weishanhu is the Navy’s first model designed to have round-the-clock supply capacity. Having a displacement of 23,000 tonnes and maximum speed of 19 knots, Weishanhu is the biggest homemade multi-product replenishment ship. Although its primary role is supply, it can also defend itself and take part in offensive operations using its eight 37mm guns.”
The ships are assigned to the PLAN`s South China Sea Fleet, headquartered in Zhanjiang (Guangdong Province) and the task group is under command of Real-Admiral Du Jingchen.
“En route to the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somalia, the commander told Xinhua that the expedition has not been given any landing plans and Chinese warships will not accept assignment from other countries or regional organizations,” Xinhua reported. “But we will exchange information with other country’s escort ships and provide humanitarian help in our power to foreign vessels in danger,” Du told the state agency.
In a separate report, Xinhua quotes People’s Liberation Army (PLA), National Defense University researcher Colonel Ge Lide as saying that China “as a responsible member of the international community, … is obliged to implement the United Nations Security Council resolutions to curb piracy on the high seas and protect the safety of marine routes.”
The agency says seven Chinese ships were “harassed by pirates” last year.
Meanwhile, Reuters reports that a French warship yesterday captured 19 Somali pirates when it came to the rescue of two cargo ships threatened in the Gulf of Aden.
The French naval vessel “Jean de Vienne” was on patrol off the Somali coast as part of a European Union anti-piracy force when it came to the rescue of a Croatian cargo vessel and a Panamanian ship crossing the Gulf of Aden.
The 19 Somali pirates, armed and equipped with equipment to board the vessels, were captured and have been handed over to Somali authorities, a statement issued by the office of French president Nicolas Sarkozy said.
The incident came three days after another French vessel captured eight Somali pirates who attacked a Panamanian registered vessel.
AFP adds that the International Maritime Bureau (IMB) piracy reporting centre in Kuala Lumpur has already separately recorded five attacks other attacks off Somalia so far this year.
The first was on New Year’s Day when a Malaysian warship helped Indian seamen fight off heavily-armed robbers attempting to board an oil tanker.
The second came just an hour later, when attackers managed to hijack the Egyptian-managed cargo ship which is carrying a load of fertiliser.
Several hours later a Greek bulk carrier was fired on, but the captain took evasive measures and managed to escape, the IMB said.
On 2 January at least five pirates attacked a German-managed tanker, firing their machine guns at the ship and its 21 crew. “The captain increased the ship’s speed along with other manoeuvres and managed to escape,” IMB reporting centre head Noel Choong told the agency.
In the fifth attack, a Greek tanker was fired on but the pirates fled when a Spanish aircraft arrived at the scene.
In a sixth incident not yet reported to the IMB, the Danish navy said one of its anti-piracy warships rushed to the rescue of a cargo ship in the Gulf of Aden Friday and rescued five pirates after they were forced into the water.
Choong said that seafarers were becoming more adept at avoiding attacks, following instructions to maintain 24-hour vigils and radar watches, and taking evasive manoeuvres when they spot pirates.
“At the same time they are making calls for help and that’s the only way they can escape,” he said.
According to IMB data, pirates are currently holding 15 vessels with some 300 crew members taken hostage.
Pirates attacked more than more than 100 ships in 2008 off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden, and raked in an estimated 120 million dollars in ransom money.
The European Union set up an anti-piracy naval task force under British command last month involving warships and aircraft from several nations in the first such naval operation of its kind.