China flies Jolly Roger on the high seas: Teresa Poole in Hong Kong describes a new and violent threat to Asian merchant shipping

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AT 8pm on Saturday 17 April the cargo ship Sun Kung 08 was chugging along in international waters about 270 nautical miles north of Luzon in the Philippines, with a cargo of plywood from Indonesia bound for Hong Kong.

A mainland Chinese patrol boat suddenly approached out of the gloom and ordered the captain to stop. When he speeded up, trying to escape, two men dressed as border security officials, each armed with a pistol and hand grenades, jumped on board and held the ship's master at gunpoint. Speaking in Mandarin, they questioned him about the cargo and then left, taking nothing.

This is the most clear-cut recent example of a new sort of threat to merchant shipping in the international waters of the China Sea: unwarranted, violent interceptions by what, in some cases, appear to be official Chinese launches or patrol boats acting well outside Chinese waters. In this instance, the patrol boat was identified as Kung Bin 170, and the boarding party claimed to be from Shanwei in Guangdong province. They did not rob anyone, nor did they try to impound the cargo. So what were they up to?

Another type of interception has, perhaps, clearer motives. Since January at least 27 loaded vessels have been intercepted by the Chinese after leaving Hong Kong with valid port clearances. Ten of the incidents occurred inside Hong Kong waters, the rest just inside Chinese waters.

According to marine officials in Hong Kong, the vessels are approached and boarded by armed, uniformed personnel, reported to be from Chinese security forces. The vessels, which are mostly Vietnamese-owned, have been carrying cargoes of new and second-hand vehicles, motorcycles, television sets and videos and other consumer goods. The boarding parties then divert the vessels to harbours in the Pearl River or elsewhere along the southern China coast, where the ships are detained and relieved of their cargoes.

The Chinese authorities allege that, despite valid port clearances to destinations outside China, these ships are smuggling goods into China. The shippers accuse the Chinese of seizing legal cargoes.

Piracy on the high seas of Asia is an age-old problem, but some of these raids cannot technically be called piracy, at least not the ones that appear to involve official Chinese patrols.

While some of the incidents can, perhaps, be put down to over-zealous anti-smuggling campaigns, the interceptions in international waters are more difficult to explain. Many occur in daylight, without any attempt at concealment. There have been at least seven reliable reports of Chinese patrol boats using excessive force against unarmed merchant ships.

Duncan Drummond, the principal surveyor at the Marine Department in Hong Kong, said: 'We are concerned about the increasing use of firearms against merchant ships in the China Sea and the safety risks created by attempts to stop and board ships.'

Five days after the Sun Kung 08 attack, the cargo ship Beacon was fired on by a patrol boat in international waters south of Hong Kong as it headed for Taiwan. The same day, the Salud Ace was attacked by two different patrol boats about 185 nautical miles south-east of Hong Kong on its way to Australia. About 300 rounds of ammunition were fired in one of the assaults, leaving bullet holes in the vessel's lifeboat, satellite dome and funnel.

In January, six men in military uniform on board a speedboat ordered the Arktis Star to stop and fired three rifle grenades at the ship, setting fire to its cargo. In another case, firecrackers were thrown on to an oil tanker.

The Hongkong Shipowners' Association wants Hong Kong's representatives to raise the issue at the meeting this month of the International Maritime Organisation's maritime safety committee. 'We can't patrol the whole of the China Sea,' said one official. 'The only way this problem is going to be solved is politically.'

(Photograph omitted)