(Recasts, adds quotes and details in paragraphs 10-20)
By Chris Buckley
BEIJING Oct 22 China has not ruled out military action to rescue the crew of a coal ship hijacked by Somali pirates, but is also open to negotiations over what a Chinese military officer said on Thursday could be a long standoff.
A successful rescue of the 25 crew members of the seized Chinese coal ship was possible if countries involved in anti-piracy operations in seas off the Somali coast worked in concert, said Major General Qian Lihua, director of the foreign affairs office of China's Ministry of Defence.
"There is some difficulty in resolving this issue," Qian told reporters at a conference in Beijing on U.S.-China relations.
"Once a ship or its crew is hijacked and the crew taken hostage, rescuing them requires much time and effort. As for the means applied, whether it is military means, or negotiations, that will depend on developments."
The vessel, the De Xin Hai, was hijacked on Monday some 700 nautical miles east of Somalia. [ID:nLJ15452]
Some Chinese media outlets have been pushing for a quick response before the ship reaches shore, but a military affairs scholar said diplomacy was preferable to an intervention.
"On the high sea, the armed forces have the right to stop any illegal activities like hijacking," the China Daily quoted Zhao Xiaozhuo, a military expert for China's Academy of Military Science, as saying.
"But if the pirates get on the land, the Chinese navy cannot make operations in Somalia as it is a sovereign state," he added.
Pirate sources had told Reuters the De Xin Hai would be taken to one of two strongholds on the Somali coast. They have threatened to kill the crew if a rescue is attempted. [ID:nLK091937]
Three Chinese warships that accompany merchant shipping convoys through the Gulf of Aden are far away from the site where the De Xin Hai was hijacked, north of the Seychelles and about 700 nautical miles from the Somali coast.
But Beijing would "seek to take up all measures to achieve a rescue", said Qian.
China also plans to organise a meeting bringing together countries involved in anti-piracy off the Somali coast, he said, without giving a time for the gathering.
The meeting was intended to clarify areas of responsibility on the sea and improve coordination, he said.
Foreign navies have been deployed off the Gulf of Aden since the turn of the year and have operated convoys as well as setting up a transit corridor for ships to pass vulnerable points.
But their forces have been stretched over the vast expanses of sea, including the Indian Ocean, leaving vessels vulnerable. Somali pirate gangs have caused havoc in the waterways linking Europe to Asia this year, and have made millions of dollars in ransom payments.
China sent its ships to join the anti-piracy operation with much fanfare, saying the action demonstrated its peaceful ambitions as a growing military power. [IDnPEK306167]
But many governments worry about China's rising military spending, especially the United States, which has said Beijing is not open enough about its intentions.
Qian told the conference in Beijing that Washington was to blame for bumpy relations between their two militaries.
U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the self-ruled island that China considers an illegitimate breakaway, showed that Washington distrusted China, treating it as a potential foe in the same mould as the former Soviet Union, said Qian.
"Frankly, the level of military cooperation between China and the U.S. does not match their global influence," he told the meeting. "There is a lack of strategic mutual confidence between us." (For a factbox on piracy incidents, click on [ID:nLF319556]) (Additional reporting by Jim Bai)
Our top photos from the past week.