This weekend, a rare meeting occurred at sea, as a high ranking officer of the Chinese Navy met with his counterpart from The Netherlands on board of the Dutch frigate Evertsen in the Gulf of Aden. Both navies are involved in the fight against piracy in the waters around Somalia.
Rear-Admiral Wang Zhiguo flew by helicopter from his own flagship, the frigate Zhoushan, to the Evertsen, the flagship of the EU flotilla in the seas around Somalia. China currently has two frigates and a supply ship in the area. Their main task is to protect Chinese merchant ships, foreign ships with Chinese cargo or, for instance, ships with a Chinese crew sailing under a foreign flag. But China also participates in the wider international efforts to combat piracy off Somalia. For example, by sharing information on suspected pirates or ships in possible danger with the other fleets. Commodore Pieter Bindt is the current commander of ‘Operation Atalanta’, the EU counter-piracy flotilla:
(Rear-Admiral Wang Zhiguo is briefed by Dutch Commodore Pieter Bindt. Photo: Dutch Navy )
“There is a EU-introduced, web-based communication system called ‘Mercury’ and the Chinese communicate with all the other counterpiracy forces on that. Furthermore, just a week ago it was announced that China wants a larger role in counter-piracy. They announced that in Beijing, where they invited NATO, EU, the Coalition Maritime Forces and Russia to discuss counter-piracy in this region, where they requested also a greater role in the co-ordination of these counter-piracy efforts.”
The interest of China in the region is the same as that of other nations and coalitions: to guarantee a safe passage of merchant vessels through the Gulf of Aden and the western part of the Indian Ocean. This is a vital route for world trade, as about one-fifth of the total volume of sea transport goes through the Gulf and the Suez Canal and vice versa. And while the activities of Somalian pirates may have disrupted some of the trade, the pirates have also, and no doubt unwillingly, forged an informal alliance of the navies of many countries, including the U.S., the E.U., NATO, China, India, Iran and Russia, to mention but a few.
Still, Commodore Pieter Bindt told Radio Netherlands that, just a few years ago, he could never have envisioned meeting a Chinese counterpart like Rear-Admiral Wang Zhiguo on board of a Dutch navy vessel.
“It’s the first time that a Chinese fleet operates in a real-world operation this far from the Chinese coast. So, that is unique. What is easy at sea and transcends diplomatic and political boundaries is that combined seamen meet at sea, things are pretty easy to organize and (it is easy) to speak to each other.”
(Chinese liaison officers in the staffroom of HNLMS Evertsen with Dutch and Belgian counterparts. Photo Hans de Vreij)
On board of the frigate HNLMS Evertsen, Rear-Admiral Wang Zhiguo was shown around the ship and briefed on the EU Operation Atalanta. Two Chinese officers stayed behind to spend the night on board the ship and get to know it better. Likewise, two Dutch navy officers spent the night on the Chinese frigate Zhoushan. While these may be small-scale activities, they appear nevertheless to be symbolic for a vastly improved cooperation of the two navies against a common opponent: piracy.