November 10, 2009 / 4:07 AM / 10 years ago

China eyes lead naval role against Somalia pirates - report

HONG KONG (Reuters) - China wants to take a lead role in spearheading naval anti-piracy operations off the Somalia coast, underscoring its spreading military ambitions beyond Chinese waters, the South China Morning Post reported on Tuesday.

The request was made during a closed door multilateral meeting over the weekend, involving representatives of major international navies deployed in the pirate-infested waters off the Gulf of Aden and around the Horn of Africa, an important maritime route linking Asia and Europe.

“It’s unprecedented, but Beijing’s request was welcomed in a very cooperative atmosphere ... there is a recognition that a great deal more work is needed to get on top of piracy,” one official at the meeting was quoted as saying.

“China is very keen but more discussion will be needed before a final agreement is reached,” the official added.

The meeting comes after a Chinese coal ship was seized last month by pirates off the Somali coast. Some Chinese media outlets urged a direct military response, but the Post reported that Beijing and the ship’s owners have instead been involved in “secret talks over a ransom to free the 25 Chinese crew”.

While NATO and the EU have so far played a lead role in the anti-piracy operations, naval vessels from China, Russia, Japan, and other nations are also involved with the coalition of naval forces seen to be stretched very thin over the vast expanses of sea, including the Indian Ocean.

The move, while still not confirmed, comes as many governments worry about China’s rising military spending, especially the United States, which has said Beijing is not open enough about its intentions.

“(China is) showing the world they are serious ... that they have the potential to be one of the big boys on the block and are prepared to risk furthering their military diplomacy. We haven’t seen anything like this before,” Sam Bateman, a senior fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, was quoted by the Post as saying.

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Ken Wills and Dean Yates)

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