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

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

Will China start fighting pirates off Nigeria?

More broadly, the EU has also begun engaging West Africa vis-à-vis substate piracy. In January 2013, it announced a $6 million annexation to its Critical Maritime Routes Programme, which aims to improve governance of vital SLOCs, strengthen regional coast guards, and construct a regional maritime information network in the GoG. EU development commissioner Andris Piebalgs stated, “The EC noted that piracy and armed robbery represent a real threat to the security of the region, which it estimated accounted for 13 percent of EU oil imports and 6 percent of gas imports. In Nigeria alone, it said, ninety-eight cases of piracy, armed robbery at sea and marine pollution had taken place over 2008-2012.” These contributions reflect Western states’ preferences for GoG states to develop indigenous antipiracy capacity, thereby obviating intensive foreign naval intervention.

Meanwhile, dialogues about GoG security continue in China. Many Chinese experts, such as Beijing International Studies University’s Xiao Yang, argue that Beijing should, foremost, utilize all available provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to safeguard its national economic interests in the GoG. He additionally recommends that Chinese oil companies in the region “optimize fleet structures to enhance oil tanker companies’ international competitiveness.” Xiao also calls for China to enhance cooperation on international shipping security, and asserts that China must increase the percentage of Chinese-flagged tankers as a share of total tankers importing oil to China. His recommendations do not suggest a major role for official Chinese security forces in the GoG, but rather optimization of China’s existing resources in the region. Xiao believes that Chinese cooperation in West Africa is embryonic.

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.

Whether or not it actually occurs, other maritime states should encourage, not fret over, potential Chinese security involvement in the GoG. The US and its allies in particular should encourage a greater positive Chinese presence in the Gulf of Guinea for several reasons. First, it would be hypocritical not to—Western commentators, including ourselves, are eager to see China contribute productively to international security in ways commensurate with its desire to be a great power. Second, China has learned valuable lessons in the Gulf of Aden and can apply some of them to providing public security goods in other maritime regions, such as the GoG. Third, China’s investment and development finance flows to Gulf of Guinea states, as well as the rest of Africa, are rising steadily, providing meaningful rationale for Beijing to potentially invest in such contributions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Gulf of Guinea could allow China to bolster its image as a real leader in the provision of global governance. This is potentially very valuable, given that China’s Near Seas maritime policies are perceived by many as harmful to China’s international image.

The Gulf of Aden represents an incomplete but somewhat successful instance of China subtly integrating into Western-based maritime security mechanisms while retaining its independent identity. Building off this progress, Beijing and the West should both encourage greater inclusion of China in designing and supporting multilateral security mechanisms to better ensure regional security in the Gulf of Guinea and other areas where weak institutions allow piracy and other nontraditional security threats to fester.

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor at the Naval War College and an Associate in Research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. He runs andrewerickson.com and co-manages ChinaSignPost.com. Austin Strange is a research associate at the China Maritime Studies Institute.