With negotiators continuing to seek the release of 25 Chinese sailors held hostage by Somali pirates, China is today hosting representatives from many of the world's navies in the hope of better coordinating anti-piracy efforts off Africa.
Naval representatives from Russia, Japan, the European Union and NATO will be among those at the two-day forum, which follows an international meeting in August with the same theme, the Ministry of National Defense told China Daily yesterday.
Attendees will discuss clarifying areas of responsibility in the Gulf of Aden and try to find "the best formula of international cooperation" for escorting vessels through the pirate-infested region, said the ministry.
Several navies have been in the Gulf of Aden since 2008 in response to the hijacking of vessels by Somali pirates, who seize ships and crews in the hope of securing a ransom payment.
Around 40 navies now have a presence in the area and participate in convoys and oversee a safe transit corridor.
While the 40 or so navies taking part are coordinating their efforts, they are not operating under a centralized command structure.
"China always takes a positive and open attitude toward international cooperation on shipping escorts and is willing to cooperate under related UN resolutions," said the ministry in a written response to China Daily.
Currently, NATO, the EU and the United States all lead flotillas, while Chinese, Russian and Japanese task forces operate independently and stay in close touch, according to the South China Morning Post.
"The meeting is an active step taken by China since joining the international maritime security mechanism," said Yin Gang, an expert in international relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
"The 5,000 nautical miles are too vast to be covered by any single country. Tighter coordination of patrols is the key to ensuring more effective protection on the Indian Ocean," said Yin.
Clarifying areas of responsibility is the best way forward, said Yin. Going beyond that would involve the sharing of intelligence codes, which is a sensitive military and political issue.
"Also, because Chinese vessels account for about 40 percent of the vessels crossing the Indian Ocean, China is keen to secure these vital water routes," Yin said.
The prospect of each country being given responsibility for a certain area of ocean, instead of having navies take part in extensive joint patrols or follow their own ships, is being welcomed by the shipping industry.
A chief captain with China Shipping Group surnamed Zhang said more extensive coverage of the waters off Africa would be especially welcome now, at a time when pirates are starting to venture far beyond the 60th meridian line, which had once seemed to be the limit off the pirates' range.
The Chinese vessel De Xin Hai was hijacked on Oct 19 east of the Seychelles, far from Chinese navy vessels that were escorting ships. It was carrying 76,000 tons of coal, from South Africa to India.
Zhang said China's proposal, if adopted, would require the participation of more navies and more ships.
But some experts remain skeptical about whether China's idea will be accepted by other navy powers.
"While major powers have already established their codes of practice at sea, it's hard for China to restructure the existing naval presence and lead the coordination," said a source close to the military who declined to give his name.
Commander John Harbour, a spokesman for EU naval forces operating off Somalia, said nations were pleased with the "unprecedented" cooperation but were unsure of what additional measures could be taken.
"We'll be happy to talk to see what more could be done ... but, from our perspective, existing lines of communication and cooperation are already working beyond what we could have originally hoped," the South China Morning Post quoted Harbour as saying.
China sent its ships to join the anti-piracy operation in December.
The De Xin Hai and its crew are being held by pirates in their stronghold of Hobyo on Somalia's east coast.
The hijacking of the De Xin Hai serves as a warning to countries that current protective efforts are insufficient and should prompt them to elevate international cooperation to plug the gaps, Yin added.