Saturday, October 24, 2009

China vs. the Somali Pirates

We haven't heard from the Somali pirates in awhile, but that could all change very soon.

On Wednesday the pirates seized a Chinese-owned cargo ship, an event that is remarkable in several ways. First, the ship - the De Xin Hai - unlike many pirate targets is really big, its carrying 76,000 tons of coal and has a crew of 25; second the De Xin Hai was captured by the pirates a whopping 700 miles off the coast of Somalia in the Indian Ocean, the farthest out to sea that the pirates have ever struck. But perhaps most remarkable was the reaction of the Chinese government, which quickly - and publicly - vowed to "make all-out efforts to rescue the hijacked ship and personnel.”

As of Friday the De Xin Hai was reported to be anchored off the coast of Somalia. Normally at this point in your standard hijacking middlemen in Somali pirate ports like the city of Eyl would start negotiating with the ship's owners for a ransom payment. But the Chinese public took their government's "all-out efforts" comments to heart and some are now burning up the blogosphere with demands that China take military action against the pirates, going so far as to say the Chinese can't "surrender" to the pirates and to do so would make China a "laughing stock" on the world stage.

China does have three warships on patrol off the coast of Somalia but whether they're equipped to launch a commando raid on the De Xin Hai is an open question. And there is a good chance that some or all of the crew may have been moved ashore, making a rescue operation all that more difficult. It will be interesting to see whether the Chinese stick to the traditional route of negotiations and ransom to get the De Xin Hai and her crew back or if they pick the military option.

Even though the Somali pirates have largely disappeared from the news in recent months, they've kept themselves busy. In fact there have been more pirate attacks in the first nine months of 2009 than during the same period in 2008. And the pirates have become more sophisticated, using large captured "mother ships" as a base for the small, speedy craft they use to attack their targets, allowing them to strike hundreds of miles off the coast of Somalia - far beyond the patrols of the flotilla of warships from nations around the world there to guard the shipping lanes.
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