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Why Did PLA Navy Let Pirates Off? PDF Print E-mail
Think Tank
LI Tianxiao   


A mystery that could not be shared with others.

On the afternoon of the 19th of October, the 70,000 ton Chinese cargo ship De Xin Hai with 25 Chinese seamen on board,  was hijacked by Somalian pirates in the waters close to the Seychelles archipelago.

This turned all eyes to a nearby Chinese naval convoy of modern missile frigates to see whether it could deliver a rapid rescue. Indeed this would be a touchstone of China’s marine prowess displayed only recently in the 60th anniversary celebration and during major ocean exercises.

However, four Somalian pirates took the giant ship into Port Hobiao at a leisurely pace while the Chinese navy said “the Chinese convoy is at full speed to rescue the hijacked ship”. So the myth of the formidable Chinese PLA force was broken by a few pirates – remember how the military bragged it was comparable to those of the U.S., Japan and Russia?

The Chinese foreign ministry was quick to adjust its propaganda from “an all-out rescue effort” to “alerting ships not to near those waters”, which was echoed by the Government to replace its strategy of “activating an emergency plan for a sea rescue operation” with that of an “insurance and ransom scheme”.

The media was synchronized to report that “Chinese vessel falls prey to pirates”. The ensuing disappointment profoundly hurt patriotic Chinese, both at home and abroad who had had placed great expectations on the  navy. Not only was the sea prowess of the missile frigates never mentioned again, but the two frigates carrying helicopters, dozens of elite navy commanders and 800 military personnel were not mentioned again either.

The De Xin Hai saga is more proof that the Chinese Communist navy is but a variation of the Qing Dynasty navy.

Before the naval exercises, the CCP navy Chief, WU Shenli, boasted that “the Chinese navy will strive to enhance capabilities to increase strategic reach and mobility in open seas.” But this incident show nothing but impotence. It has completely lost face before a few pirates, adding another disgrace to the nation and the Party. A couple of points are noteworthy:

There is no denying that the frigates were much faster than the pirate boats and were capable of intercepting them at sea within the time frame. Therefore an inference could be drawn that the Chinese warships deliberately let the enemy off.

Illustration from the Chinese New Millitary website. (screenshot)

The strategy was simple: rather than rush to the hijack scene 1080 nautical miles away, the frigates could cut a short course to areas off the Somalian coast in the vicinity of Port Hobiao, with the availability of EU patrolling planes’ updated positions of the De Xin Hai. This would reduce the length of the chase by half, to 500 nautical miles. If everything went well, the Chinese ships should catch the pirates 40 hours later when the pirates were sailing the slow De Xin Hai. However, reports revealed the convoy was delayed by ten hours through waiting for a rendezvous with three frigates. This was tantamount to letting the pirates slip away.

The inconvenient truth of the pirates being let free seems the consideration that propaganda and fuel weighed more then the safety of the crew. One analyst believes that the Chinese navy abandoned the chase based on calculations that fuel consumed on two frigates pursuing the pirates would cost more than the cost of a ransom. Human lives are so trivial that it was not worth while to save – this seems to be the guideline of warfare for the Chinese expeditionary navy force.

It is not news that the Chinese Communist regime is not concerned with the welfare of the Chinese people. This regime maintained a low key in the incident of a Chinese merchant vessel sunken by the Russian navy, not even lodging a strong protest. Its army made no move in the Wen Chuan Earthquake, not even when the Premier Wen Jiabao flew into anger at this and threw the phone away. Thus the best opportunity for disaster rescue operation was lost.

In 2007, the Chinese fishing boat “Qing Feng Hua No 168” was hijacked by Somalia pirates and eleven of its crew members were detained for 202 days, one of whom was shot to death by pirates. They were eventually rescued by the U.S. Navy. The entire tragedy was covered up for six months, with no media reports and the families of the crew kept in the dark. Naturally there was no rescue operation at all.

The U.S. main stream media were a sharp contrast, when a vessel that flew the U.S. flag and its American captain Phillip, were captured by Somalia pirates. They reacted with a continual coverage of the development. The captain was soon rescued and pirates besieged and shot dead by a U.S. frigate that had rushed to the scene from 500 nautical miles away. This demonstrates the entirely different approach the U.S. government has towards the value of peoples’ lives, leaving aside the comparison of the military powers between the two countries.

Lastly the Somalian pirates have prevailed over the Chinese Communist regime because they have seen through its loopholes, the vanity shows and bravado that the PLA projects. The grand military parade on celebration day is just to show off; the display of the womens' guard of honour at Tiananmen Square is for feasting the eye and Hu Jintao’s calls to the PLA army is designed to compete with Jiang Zemin to expand his influence. The Chinese navy convoys that were sent one after another to the Golf of Adan are more symbolic than pragmatic, as best illustrated this time in the game the pirates had played. Their “guerrilla” war at sea easily pricked the Chinese navy bravado of being “invincible”.

The Somalian civil wars have plagued this country since 1991, resulting in social disorder, dire destitution and rampant piracy in the region. The pirates regard the self-indulging and self-posing Chinese regime as a rich financial source – millions of dollars free for the taking. But this is intolerable for the Chinese people when the communist regime brazenly flaunts its power and hands the hard-earned money of the people to Somalian pirates.

Li Tianxiao, Senior Political Analyst, Ph.D. in Political Science 1994, Columbia University; Fulbright Scholar 1986; Former Professor of International Politics, Fudan University, Shanghai, China.



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