A senior US State Department official praised China’s efforts in global counterpiracy in the waters off Somalia, a busy sea lane where attacks and hijacking of commercial ships worry many nations.
Todd Chapman, principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs of the State Department, said it was reassuring to see China prominently represented in the battle against piracy.
“China’s spokesperson stated very clearly their commitment to this issue and they want to continue the long-standing partnership with other members of the Contact Group, so I think it’s an encouraging sign,” Chapman told a press briefing in Washington on Friday.
He was referring to a late-October meeting in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, of the 17th plenary of the Contact Group on Piracy off the Coast of Somalia (CGPCS), an international forum launched in 2009.
Chapman, who began his current job in September, attended that conference. He called it “a fantastic example of the international community coming together to address the common problem” and “a model of 21st century partnership”.
The rise of piracy off the coast of Somalia spurred the creation and passage in 2008 of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1851, which authorizes states to work more closely in the fight against piracy there.
On Nov 12, the Security Council passed a new resolution reaffirming its condemnation of all acts of piracy and robbery at sea off Somalia.
Chinese Ambassador to the UAE Huang Jiemin, on behalf of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, attended the 17th plenary in Dubai, along with more than 600 representatives from 50 countries, international and regional organizations.
Huang said that participation by the international community in the escort mission in the Gulf of Aden has been fruitful. He noted that while the incidence of attacks by Somalia pirates has declined sharply, international shipping still faces a security threat off Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden.
He called for a comprehensive approach in addressing the problem by boosting the security capacity in Somalia, assisting economic development there and strengthening the capacity of other nations on that part of the Indian Ocean coast.
Thanks to the multinational efforts, the piracy off Somalia, which once cost the world economy an estimated $7 billion a year, has been largely curbed in the past year.
While the number of attacks on ships off Somalia reached 237 in 2011, with 28 of the attacks resulting in vessel hijackings and sailors held hostage for ransom, there has not been a successful raid against a commercial ship there since May 10, 2012, according to Chapman.
In 2013, there were only 15 incidents reported, down from 75 in 2012. No ships today are currently held by Somali pirates, but more than 30 merchant sailors are being held hostage by pirate gangs.
The hostages include 11 Chinese who were hijacked on March 26, 2012, in an Omani-flagged ship, now aground in Somalia. The Global Times in China published a story in late October featuring some family members of the hostages pleading for their release.
Chapman said that the Somali government and some subnational organizations are committed to helping young Somalis find something to do other than joining the pirates.
But he said it was going to be a long process and described the success as “fragile”.
By October, China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy had sent 18 batches of convoy ships to the area since December 2008. They have provided escort to more than 5,700 Chinese and foreign ships. The mission was carried out at the request of the Somali government and under the authorization of the UN Security Council.
China also opened its embassy in Mogadishu, capital of Somalia, in July after it was closed since 1993, when the East African nation was plunged into civil war. Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Zhang Ming visited Somalia in October to attend an opening ceremony, also attended by Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.
So far, 1,400 pirates and suspected pirates are in courts or prison in 21 countries. Chapman described effective prosecution of piracy in affected states as a priority.
The cost of piracy to the global economy is estimated at $18 billion a year, including declines in tourism and fishing since 2006. Pirates off the coast of Somalia and the Horn of Africa have taken in between $339 million and $413 million in ransoms the past seven years, according to a 2013 analysis published by UNODC, the World Bank and Interpol.