Piracy draws China back to the ranks of maritime giants

Piracy off the coast of Somalia has forced China to send its navy far afield and return to the ranks of maritime powers in the same seas where the last great Chinese fleet operated some 600 years ago.

By Pascal Mallet

On Friday, two Chinese destroyers and a supply ship will set sail for the Gulf of Aden — the first time in recent history that Beijing has deployed vessels on a potential combat mission well beyond its territorial waters.

That China, the world’s fourth biggest economic power and climbing, would have an interest in the freedom of the seas — where most of the world’s cargo is transported — is not a surprise.

Seven of the roughly 100 ships attacked by Somali pirates since the beginning of the year have been Chinese, and at least one from China is still thought to be in the hands of the attackers.

But the decision is both historic and could have far-reaching consequences.

Historic, because the last time ships were sent so far — coincidentally to the east coast of Africa and the southern Gulf region — was under Admiral Zheng He in the 15th century.

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