He Jianzhong, a spokesman for China's transport ministry, said the naval team would "actively provide information and necessary rescue services for those merchant ships passing through the Gulf of Aden and Somali waters".

The naval team is operating with the approval of the UN Security Council and Somalia's transitional government, while the mission's commander has pledged to "earnestly follow UN resolutions and relevant international laws".

Fighting back

But Rear Admiral Xiao Xinnian, the navy's deputy chief of staff, warned prospective pirates that his sailors were prepared to use force.

"[If] our naval vessels are ambushed by pirate ships we will resolutely fight back to protect our own safety," Xiao told reporters in Beijing, adding that they would "suppress" any acts of piracy they came across.

The missile-armed Haikou and Wuhan, said to be two of the Chinese navy's most sophisticated destroyers, along with two helicopters and the supply ship Weishanhu, are carrying about 800 crew members in total, including 70 members of the elite special forces.

Their deployment, alongside other international warships patrolling the area, is in response to a recent surge of pirate attacks on vessels plying the crucial shipping route.

Last year saw around 100 pirate attacks in the region, pushing up insurance costs and bringing the pirates tens of millions of dollars in ransom payments.

It has also prompted some firms to begin sailing their vessels on the longer and more expensive route around Africa.