U.S. Takes Backseat in Battle Against Somali Pirates

As China deploys warships to battle pirates off the coast of Somalia, the United States is still sitting on the sidelines, hampered by questions of jurisdiction and politics.

One day after the attempted hijacking of a Chinese cargo ship and two days after the U.N. Security Council voted to authorize nations to battle the pirates by land or by sea, Beijing announced Thursday that it will send naval ships to the Gulf of Aden.

The U.S. said it supported China's efforts, but it would not join the fight against the pirates beyond the ships it has already deployed as part of an international effort that includes the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, France and Denmark.

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"The U.S. has no problem with China deploying its assets," a State Department official told FOX News, adding that the U.N. resolution outlined a framework for nations whose ships have been attacked to pursue the pirates.

"China, like a number of other countries, has decided that we as an international community must act," the spokesman said.

But sovereignty issues are tying the hands of countries that want to battle the pirates, RAND Corp. senior security analyst Peter Chalk told FOXNews.com. Unless a strategic U.S. vessel were attacked, he said, the U.S. would hesitate to increase its military involvement in the Gulf of Aden.

"It would depend on what was on board," Chalk said. "I would imagine a container ship or a supply ship deemed not terribly important, and if the pirates demands were reasonably acceptable, that U.S. officials would negotiate. But if a vessel transporting oil or technologies that could be utilized for weaponry was hijacked, I definitely think there will be a military response."

None of the ships captured by pirates in 2008 flew the U.S. flag, although pirates did try to hijack the M.S. Nautica, a cruise ship registered in the Marshall Islands but operated by U.S.-based Oceania Crusies in November.

Professor Linda Malone, law professor and director of the Human Rights and National Security Law Program at William and Mary Law School in Virginia, said America's involvement with NATO has brought the U.S. deeper into the piracy conflict that it might have been otherwise, but that politics may be tying the country's hands when it comes to acting in Somalia.

"My conjecture would be that the United States has been one of the most vocal countries about Darfur, and as a result we are also one of the countries with the most antagonistic relations with Somalia, and rightly so," Malone said.

"There may be other countries that felt that they have more of an opening to engage in affirmative efforts and be more aggressive without the possibility of conflict rearing up and problems arising," she said. "I don't know whether that's the case or not, but the U.S. is taking something of a moderate approach."

While the U.S. is not being as aggressive as it could be, "we may not be in the best position politically to do the most about these issues," Malone said.

Foreign navies, like America's, are also hesitant to capture suspected pirates because of jurisdiction issues, Malone said.

"Since Somalia's de facto government has given indications that it accepts the possibility of incursions into its territorial sea and possibly into its own territory to attack pirate bases… turning pirates over to government [is a possibility]," she said. "Obviously they don't have the best legal system or the most established government, but they would presumably take care of anyone who was a pirate."

Also hampering American involvement is the possibility that captured pirates could make their way to American shores. "Technically, under international law, any country has jurisdiction to take them to their own country and try them there. They just don't want to do that," Malone said.

Changing the situation in politically unstable Somalia will be an integral part of the fight against the pirates, Clark said.

"A far better approach to all of this would be to deal with Somalia -- that's the big elephant in the room," Chalk said "These pirates are seen as heroes in many local communities because they are stimulating the local economies."

He said military power alone won't defeat the pirates if Somalia remains unstable. "It hasn't worked in the drug trade and it won't work here. Piracy is just another form of crime; it just takes place at seas. The only way to truly eliminate piracy is to eliminate global maritime traffic, and that's just not going to happen."

Admiral Tim Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, said at a press conference on Thursday that he would be meeting soon with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, and that the Somali pirate situation would be on the agenda.

"We are working with the Chinese to ensure they are aware of the lines of communication that are available to them and to avail them of certain parts of information that we have from our friends in Central Command, should they desire to send ships to the piracy," Keating said.

He said increased cooperation and collaboration between "right-minded countries who want to decrease piracy" led to positive results in Southeast Asia, as countries like Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand got involved. "Incidents of piracy of two or three years ago were numbered in the several dozens, three or four dozen per year," he said. "Those are down in this past year to seven incidents of piracy in the Strait of Malacca.

"And we think those lessons learned are, some of them, transferable to the Gulf of Aden."

China's actions are significant but unlikely to make a dent in the piracy problem, Chalk told FOXNews.com.

"It's unprecedented on the part of China to contribute to something like this, it's never really had much of a naval presence outside its region," Chalk said.

"The wide question is whether or not these armed ships will make a difference. In my opinion, they probably won't because the area is so large, there are so many ships to protect and both are expanding every day. Maybe there will be a symbolic relevance to it, an emerging power lending a hand, but practically I can't see it making a huge difference overall."

Wang Baodong, a spokesman for the Embassy of China in Washington, told FOXNews.com about 20 percent of the 1,265 Chinese ships that passed through the Gulf of Aden between January and November this year have come under attack, citing data from the Kenya-based East Africa Seafarers Assistance Program.

"The Chinese government welcomes the international cooperation in working together to fight against the pirates," he said. "That part of the high sea is very important for China," he said. "The Chinese interest has been severely affected.

FOXNews.com's Joshua Rhett Miller and Jennifer Lawinski, FOX News' Nina Donagy and the Associated Press contributed to this report.