09 December 2013

Piracy’s Next Frontier: A Role for China in Gulf of Guinea Security?

Andrew S. Erickson and Austin M. Strange, “Piracy’s Next Frontier: A Role for China in Gulf of Guinea Security?The National Interest, 10 December 2013.

Nestled in the crook of Africa’s long western coast, the Gulf of Guinea is emerging as the next frontier in the international effort against piracy. It is particularly important to understand what role China may play there, as Beijing is increasingly defending its overseas interests in new ways, including with military power.

On December 26, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) will hail the fifth anniversary of its antipiracy mission in the Gulf of Aden. The volatile nature of China’s twenty-first-century international maritime nontraditional security record is fascinating. Between deploying sixteen antipiracy taskforces to fight Somali piracy over five years and recently contributing only limited disaster relief to the Philippines after typhoon Haiyan, the PLAN’s provision of security assets runs tightly parallel with the distribution of China’s “core interests”, as articulated by its leadership.

The past decade has provided rare insights into how China will interact with other powers at sea. Both the Chinese navy’s experience in the Far Seas to date and its future role in maritime security are rightly attracting observers’ attention.

Somali piracy has dominated discussions on contemporary piracy. On November 18, 2013, through Security Council Resolution S/RES/2125, the UN extended an international mandate for navies to patrol the Gulf of Aden for another year. Somali piracy has declined since 2012, and large-scale naval antipiracy operations there are unlikely to persist indefinitely. Meanwhile, the nexus of piracy has quickly shifted from east to west. While Somali piracy has plummeted, largely as a result of multinational naval deployments since 2008, piracy continues to fester in poorly governed maritime regions that lack legitimate economic opportunities. This shift is significant for China and other maritime powers that rely heavily on stable maritime shipping lanes. In particular, China’s role in international antipiracy has provided Beijing with a useful foil for what is widely perceived as a brash maritime posture in the Near Seas. The decline of Somali piracy thus raises an important question: how, if at all, will China contribute to antipiracy efforts in other regions, such as the Gulf of Guinea, in the coming years?

The Gulf of Guinea exemplifies the constant threat of modern piracy. While worldwide pirate attacks fell overall in 2012, there were fifty-eight incidents for the year in the Gulf of Guinea (GoG), at least thirty-seven of which involved pirates armed with guns. In 2010, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) labeled West African waters as one of the world’s six maritime regions most vulnerable to piracy. In October 2011, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 2018 urging regional states to combat piracy by targeting West African pirate financiers. According to UN statistics, sixty-five pirate attacks occurred in the territorial waters of nine Western African countries in 2011, compared to just 45 in 2010. Last month, Nigerian pirates in the GoG released two American hostages on board the hijacked oil vessel C Retriever.
Unlike the Gulf of Aden, the GoG is not one of the waterways central to China’s burgeoning “Ocean Economy.” Regardless, China’s reliance on the world’s most pirate-infested sea lines of communication (SLOC) will only increase in the coming decades, as Chinese economic reforms unfold and demand for external oil and gas supplies rises. GoG resources include oil, diamonds, gold and fish. Threats to oil shipping such as illegal drug trafficking, fuel smuggling, oil pipeline damage, piracy, poaching and maritime pollution all increase GoG instability. One Chinese analyst has written that all West African countries combined possess only about twenty-five naval warships over twenty-five meters long that could be effective in deterring piracy. Another study estimates that GoG piracy accounts for losses of approximately $2 billion annually. That said, China’s commercial presence in the GoG is less mature than its presence off Somalia. For one, Chinese enterprises entered the GoG relatively late. For instance, Sinopec obtained two oil extraction blocs in Nigeria in 2004, over a century after Western countries began extracting resources in the region. … …

Unlike the Gulf of Aden, a protracted security presence in the GoG arguably allows China to gain more credit as a responsible maritime power, since it relies less on security there. For the reasons discussed above, however, it is still uncertain how appealing the possibility of a GoG deployment is to Beijing at the moment. Moreover, China has already encountered formidable logistics challenges in the Gulf of Aden, where it does not have a permanent military presence. The GoG would presumably be even more taxing on its platforms, with less at stake. Put simply, for China in the near term, there are both more operational and political barriers in GoG operations, and less economic incentive. Indeed, perhaps China’s best strategy would be to integrate into prevailing joint initiatives such as the Obangame Express. This would allow China to send an unprecedented positive signal to the international community by acting congruently rather than in parallel. That said, the Gulf of Aden case has revealed both opportunities and barriers to integrating Chinese and Western security assets. Regardless, steady increases in pirate attacks, a breakthrough in international law, or some other game-changing development that would change the security status quo in the GoG could quickly elicit a more active Chinese response. … … …