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UPDATED: April 19, 2010 NO. 16 APRIL 22, 2010
Sailing Into the Storm
International praise for Chinese escort fleets protecting merchant ships against Somali pirates

During these formations, rotations will take place during which ships will be either patrolling, undergoing equipment maintenance or receiving fuel. Practices have proven this deployment strategy can offer a timely response to emergencies.

Of course, Chinese naval ships have the mandate to defend the ships they are guarding with a decisive use of force. To this end, fleet commanders and warship captains are well schooled in the rules of military engagement, with extensive experience in the arena of naval commandment.

Take Task Force 529 for example. Its Commander Wang Zhiguo, and Deputy Commander Wen Xinchao, were both born in the 1950s. Wang is a graduate of several military academies including the Dalian Naval Academy and the National Defense University. In addition, Wang has held positions as deputy captain and captain of a warship, chief of staff, director of a fleet training center, vice commander of a naval base.

Wen also studied in the Dalian Naval Academy and the National Defense University. He has held positions as vice political commissar and political commissar of a submarine, political commissar of a naval brigade and vice political commissar of the Naval Engineering University, among other roles.

Fleet officers are also highly qualified with solid military capabilities and healthy psychological traits. More than 80 percent of the officers, for instance, have undergone long-distance sailing exercises and deployments before. They all have extensive sailing experience and are fully capable of handling various challenges.

In the spirit of peace and transparency, the Chinese escort fleets have actively conducted cooperation and exchanges with foreign fleets—not limited to exchanging warship visits and information with the Combined Task Force 151 fleet of the United States, the Combined Task Force 465 fleet of the EU, and the Combined Task Force 508 fleet of NATO.

Meanwhile, other bilateral activities have also been carried out. These have included Chinese-Russian joint escorts, Chinese-Russian joint military exercises and short-term deployments in which young sailors from China and the Netherlands have been posted aboard each others' ships to better understand their naval experience.

Challenges ahead

Since November 2009, the sea lanes off the Somali coast—the ones that most closely link Mediterranean Europe and East Africa and South and East Asia—are being frequented by pirates more than ever, Cao said.

Indeed, piracies are being reported with alarming frequency, while, at the same time, pirate activity has gone farther out to sea. It now extends eastward to some 500 to 1,000 nautical miles off Somalia, westward to the Mandab Strait, northward to the Omani coast and southward toward the Seychelles.

These gangs are also beginning to multiply. In years past, they were just scattered. But now, many speedboats are multiplying and cooperating in their attacks. As they go further out to sea, criminal gangs are also carrying larger fuel supplies to allow them increased mobility and distance.

More sophisticated armaments have entered the equation as well: Many commercial vessels have recently reported that pirates had even tried to take them over with rocket launchers.

To further motivate the international community, the UN Security Council has extended the right of international naval authorities to crack down on piracy until November 30, 2010.

So how long should China's participation last?

As many have noted, the Chinese Navy has now entered a new, vital stage of regular deployments coupled with increased international cooperation in the region.

The Chinese Navy does not have an overseas base. Wang says he believes a combination of port supplies and offshore temporary supplies is enough to ensure the normal operation of its convoy fleets.

For now, regardless of the constantly changing situation—not to mention the threat it poses to crucial Chinese maritime trade—Chinese Navy sailors can only hope for the sight of calmer waters.

(This article is based on a news report of Outlook Weekly, written by Chen Zewei)

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