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?


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.”

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.

Will China expand its antipiracy portfolio to West Africa? There are several likely prerequisites for such a development. First, GoG security would need to deteriorate beyond regional security forces’ control, to the extent that foreign stakeholders believed that intervention was necessary to protect their interests. This has already occurred. Outside powers such as the U.S. and Europe currently view regional cooperation as a preferable solution to a full-on Somali-style international effort, although such perceptions are heavily dependent on trends in the region. Second, outside calls for international intervention would need to be formalized and pass through the UNSC. A resolution similar to UNSC resolutions 1918 and 2020 for the GoA providing an international legal framework would certainly increase the likelihood of direct Chinese involvement. Even with the passage of a UN resolution, however, China would also require regional states’ acquiescence. West Africans have already requested foreign antipiracy assistance. For example, like other West African leaders, Ivory Coast president Alassane Ouattara has urged the international community to “…show the same firmness in the Gulf of Guinea as displayed in the Gulf of Aden, where the presence of international naval forces has helped to drastically reduce acts of piracy.” Additionally, Beijing would need to determine that benefits of involvement outweigh the potential costs; in particular, it would need to answer several questions:

1. To what extent is China’s security threatened overseas?

2. How is piracy in the GoG affecting China’s economic interests?

3. What are the long-term implications of GoG piracy for Chinese energy and commodity resource security?

4. How would Chinese action or inaction resonate domestically and abroad?

To date, China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Wang Min has repeatedly exhorted the international community to “play a positive and constructive role” in enhancing West African security capabilities: “We call upon the international community to give necessary assistance to the countries concerned and relevant regional organization by sharing information and experience, providing technological assistance and enhancing capacity building.” Wang added: “The Chinese government will also continue to provide assistance within our capabilities.” Similar to China’s official stance on Somali piracy, Wang has persistently underscored the need to eliminate the roots of piracy in the GoG, which requires alleviating poverty and promoting development in West Africa. Moreover, Sr. Captain Feng Liang stated in August 2013 that China is considering cooperation with other nations in the Gulf of Guinea.

If China decided to get involved, it could choose from several different approaches: Would China dispatch police and paramilitary forces, as it did along the Mekong, or would it opt for a second, extended “Far Seas” deployment by sending PLAN forces to fight piracy? Would China participate in land-based antipiracy operations? Chinese maritime police and paramilitary forces likely lack both the jurisdiction and the capacity for a Far Seas deployment. Personnel could hypothetically be transported either by commercial means or via the PLAN or PLA Air Force. But without having their own dedicated platforms, this would seem impractical, unless they were coming for temporary exercise or to be seconded to host country forces on land. Civil maritime ships are smaller and lack capacity and experience for effective Far Seas performance. If a security deployment materialized, therefore, it would likely be under PLAN auspices.

A naval deployment would offer challenges and opportunities that differed, albeit slightly, from Gulf of Aden deployments. Sending PLAN forces to the GoG would provide substantial diplomatic opportunities for China, perhaps even more so than the Gulf of Aden mission, since ships would have to transit the Mediterranean Sea and circumnavigate Northwest Africa. New supply and port access approaches would have to be adapted and extended from lessons learned in the Gulf of Aden.

Of course, a Chinese presence in the GoG would coexist with Western approaches to antipiracy in the region, which are relatively mature. For example, in late 2011 France launched a three-year initiative to build local antipiracy capacity and provide surveillance for states near the GoG such as Benin, Ghana, and Togo. France is aiming particularly to support Benin, its former colony, and committed approximately $10.4 million worth of training services as well as two surveillance aircraft. In February 2012, Nigeria’s navy teamed with naval forces from the US, Belgium, Spain, and seven other countries to conduct antipiracy exercises termed “Obangame [Common] Express” (O-E) in Calabar, Nigeria. The exercises also covered oil theft, smuggling, and other maritime security threats. Organized by the Nigerian navy’s Eastern Naval Command, warships and officers from eleven states gained experience in GoG waters during the week-long exercises. The Obangame Express joint antipiracy exercises are led by the U.S. Naval Forces Africa (NAVAF) annually. The 2013 round of O-E exercises, which concluded February 28, included Belgium, Benin, Brazil, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, France, Gabon, Netherlands, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, São Tomé and Príncipe, Spain, Togo, and the United States. The exercises are designed to “promote the inter-interoperability and proficiency of the regional maritime stakeholders.” Nigeria has voiced its desire to share more information and to refine its tactics, techniques and procedures for maritime security.