China's anti-piracy naval fleet sailed into waters off Somalia on Tuesday, starting a three-month mission to protect passing ships against pirates. The Ministry of Transport has also started accepting escort requests from Chinese vessels.
The Chinese convoy, alongside other international warships, will patrol the area near the Gulf of Aden, a busy shipping lane leading to and from the Suez Canal.
Chinese mainland registered or invested ships set to sail through the Gulf of Aden can now hand in applications for escort to the China Shipowners' Association, which will pass on the request to the Ministry of Transport. The ministry will provide information about the vessels seeking help to the Chinese fleet on a daily basis.
Vessels from China's Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan can also seek escorts from the warships, according to an announcement by the Ministry of Transport.
The Hong Kong Marine Department has passed seven applications from Hong Kong-flagged vessels to the mainland requesting protection off Somalia, Hong Kong media reported on Monday.
The arrival of the Chinese fleet was welcomed by Hong Kong ship owners, Hong Kong's Marine Director Roger Tupper was quoted as saying.
"[The protection of] Hong Kong-flagged vessels will be facilitated," Tupper said.
The Chinese flotilla will also protect ships carrying humanitarian relief supplies for international organizations, such as the World Food Program.
Foreign ships can also apply for escort; the Chinese side will make a decision, pending actual conditions, the Ministry of Transport said.
The convoy, consisting of two missile destroyers and a supply vessel, departed on December 26, 2008 from Sanya in south China's Hainan Province. It is the country's first naval deployment on a potential combat mission beyond its territorial waters in recent history.