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China naval ships to head for Somali waters

BEIJING (Reuters) - Three Chinese naval vessels are scheduled to leave for the waters off Somalia on Friday to help tackle rampant piracy in a sign of the country’s rising global clout and diplomatic and military ambitions. The fleet -- two destroyers and a supply ship -- would have about 800 crew, including 70 special operations troops, the official Xinhua news agency said.

Pirates boats are seen nearby the Chinese ship "Zhenhua 4" in the Gulf of Aden, December 17, 2008 in this handout photo. The Chinese ship escaped pirate hijack in the Gulf of Aden after the crew fought for four hours with the help of a multi-coalition force. Nine pirates armed with rocket launchers and heavy machine guns boarded the ship. The 30 crew members locked themselves in their accommodation area, using fire hydrants and firebombs to prevent the attackers from entering, said an official with China Maritime Search and Rescue Center (CMSRC), Xinhua News Agency reported. REUTERS/Handout

“We have made special preparations to deal with pirates, even though these waters are not familiar to us,” it quoted mission commander Rear-Admiral Du Jingcheng as saying.

The crack special forces are expected to give the fleet an edge in seeing off the pirates, with one of the soldiers able to “handle several enemies with (his) bare hands,” Xinhua said.

“Our primary target is not striking them but dispelling them,” Du said. “If the pirates make direct threats against the warships or the vessels we escort, the fleet will take counter measures.”

The destroyers Haikou and Wuhan, which will leave from the southern resort island province of Hainan, were two of China’s navy’s most sophisticated warships, Xinhua said.

A surge in attacks at sea this year in the busy Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean off Somalia has pushed up insurance costs, brought the Somali gangs tens of millions of dollars in ransom and prompted foreign warships to the area.

The victims have included a Hong Kong-flagged ship with 25 crew aboard and a Chinese fishing boat reported seized off Kenya.

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Apart from goodwill visits, the last time Chinese warships sailed to Africa was some 600 years ago, when the Ming Dynasty eunuch Admiral Zheng He commanded one of the mightiest armadas in the world on a diplomatic mission.

While China’s growing wealth and influence have seen it involved in a number of peacekeeping operations around the world, it has traditionally kept troops close to home, reflecting a doctrine of non-interference in other nations’ affairs.

But the Somalia mission, aimed at beating back a common international scourge and to protect its energy and mineral supplies, is an opportunity for China to take a greater role in global security without raising hackles from neighbors, many of whom have long-festering border disputes with Beijing.

“The general sense is China is now a regional power, and in the economic domain has become a major player with rising economic strength,” said Wu Ray-kuo, managing director of political risk at Taipei’s Fu-Jen University.

“There is also responsibility that comes with it, responsibility not only in the area of financial matters but also in other areas like politics and security.”

Still, the presence of Chinese warships in foreign waters is sure to fan unease in some quarters overseas.

Beijing’s opaque but quickening military build-up has contributed to a sense of unease in parts of Asia, especially Taiwan, the self-ruled island China claims as its own and has vowed to bring under mainland control, by force if necessary.

“For a military, the results of participating in this kind of action are not just about gaining experience at combating pirates,” Major-General Jin Yinan, head of a strategy institute at China’s National Defense University, wrote this week.

“It is even more about raising the ability to perform missions on seas far away,” he wrote in the Study Times, a Communist Party weekly.

Additional reporting by Doug Young in Taipei; Editing by Nick Macfie

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