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

Will China start fighting pirates off Nigeria?

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.

Compared with piracy in many other regions, GoG piracy is a different beast. While traditionally involving kidnappings and hostage taking for ransom payments, acts of piracy in the GoG are increasingly designed to attack expensive assets such as drilling platforms and oil tankers and loot valuable resources. GoG pirates are often more interested in offloading ship cargo, including oil, than in acquiring the actual vessels themselves. West African littoral states currently account for 5–6 percent of world oil production, and the region’s stake in global crude oil production is rising. Referring to GoG piracy, former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe, Mark Fitzgerald, stated, “It’s a pretty significant problem, and we have started to focus down in the Gulf of Guinea to try to help build up capability.”