Thursday, December 11, 2008

Experts debate China's role in Somalia mission

Experts debate China's role in Somalia mission
By Zhang Haizhou (China Daily)
Updated: 2008-12-12 07:44

Chinese military strategists and international relations experts are debating whether China should dispatch its navy to the troubled waters off Somalia.

The debate was first kicked off by Major-General Jin Yinan of the National Defense University, when he told a radio station last week that "nobody should be shocked" if the Chinese government one day decides to send navy ships to deal with the pirates.

The general's views came after two Chinese ships - a fishing vessel and a Hong Kong-flag ship with 25 crew aboard - were seized by Somali pirates in mid Nov.

Jin gave no sign that such a naval mission was under immediate consideration, but he said China's growing influence has made it likely that the government might use its forces in security operations far from home.

Pirates on speedboat approach one of their mother boats docked near Eyl, Somalia in this framegrab made from a November 24, 2008 TV footage. The enclave of Eyl is the homeground of pirates who are wreaking havoc on the waters off the coast of Somalia. [Agencies]

"I believe the Chinese navy should send naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden to carry out anti-piracy duties," he said. "If one day, the Chinese navy sends ships to deal with pirates, nobody should be shocked."

"With China being a major world economy, it's very difficult to say that security problems across the world have nothing to do with us," Jin said.

While the military strategist is urging an active deployment, other scholars think the government should be cautious before a decision is made.

The Chinese military vessels should go there "only within the UN framework," said Pang Zhongying, a professor of international relations with Renmin University of China.

Since July, the UN has adopted three resolutions urging the international community to respond to the piracy problem off Somalia; the EU started an anti-piracy mission earlier this week in response to the UN resolution.

"Non-intervention is the principle of China's foreign policy, which has not changed," Pang said. However, China is trying to "play a more constructive and responsible role in international conflicts and other crises," he said.

"China is now trying to balance its old principle and the new reality," he added.

China has never dispatched any troops for combat missions overseas. The Chinese army personnel joining UN peacekeeping missions are engineering and medical staff, or police, apart from peacekeepers.

"Non-intervention is in the process of slow change," Pang said, adding China is trying to cooperate with international organizations such as the UN and the African Union (AU) in solving regional and international conflicts, Pang said.

Pang added that he also had some concerns over the Chinese navy's capability.

"I don't think the Chinese navy has the capacity to counter unconventional threats far in the ocean," he said, adding supplying and refueling in the Indian Ocean are key challenges.

However, some military strategists do not agree.

Professor Li Jie, a navy researcher, said the Chinese navy has proved that it is capable of such missions.

In 2002, two Chinese vessels spent four months on a global tour, the country's first.

"Also, the UN resolutions mean that such deployment is legitimate," Li said, noting that rampant piracy is a problem not only for other countries, but also for China.

"I think we should go there," he added, acknowledging that command and communication will be challenges for such multi-national missions.

"But the mission can also be good training for the Chinese navy," he said.

However, Professor Jin Canrong of Renmin University told China Daily: "I think we should not dispatch navy ships there unless we have to do so."

Sending naval vessels to the waters off Somalia may raise some concerns and provide ammunition to "China threat" demagogues, he said.

Instead, joining a prospective UN peacekeeping force is a better choice.

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