Why many ships are displaying ‘all Chinese’ identity in Red Sea

NEW DELHI: Several cargo ships and tankers navigating the Red Sea have started broadcasting that their crews are entirely Chinese, presumably to deter attacks by Yemeni rebels. At least nine ships, while approaching or traversing the Red Sea, have altered their automatic identification system (AIS) to display messages such as ‘CHINESE’ or ‘ALL CHINESE’.This system is a global tracker mandated by international maritime convention.
This tactic was first identified by Bloomberg, which found five ships employing it. Business Insider later discovered at least four additional vessels in or near the Red Sea using similar messages. For instance, the bulk carrier Great Ocean, often visiting Chinese ports and flying the Liberian flag, declared it had an ‘ALL CHINESE CREW’. Another vessel, the bulk carrier Dias, also under the Liberian flag and frequently visiting Ukrainian and Chinese ports, signaled ‘CHINA’ while sailing near the Red Sea.
The nationalities of the crew on these nine ships have not been immediately verified by Business Insider. However, once these ships exited the region, they reverted their AIS destinations to normal.
This new practice suggests that ship owners or crews believe demonstrating links to China might make them appear sympathetic to Palestinians in Gaza or the Houthis, who have intensified attacks in the Red Sea since November. This aligns with Beijing’s nationalist push to portray China as neutral in global conflicts and maintaining positive relations with less affluent nations.
China has openly criticized Israel’s actions in Gaza and recently opposed the US and UK’s strikes against Houthi targets. These strikes were in response to Houthi attacks on international vessels, which the Houthis claim are a reaction to the war in Gaza.
In a similar vein, at least two ships in the area declared affiliations with Russia, another country critical of strikes on the Houthis. This echoes a common tactic used by civilian vessels in the Gulf of Aden, where crews manually set their AIS destinations as “ARMED GUARD ONBOARD” to deter pirate attacks. More than a dozen vessels continue to display this status even after leaving the Gulf of Aden and entering the Red Sea.
A shipping industry advisory in December indicated an increase in vessels hiring private armed guards due to the surge of Houthi attacks. Some ships have been turning off their AIS trackers upon entering the region, hoping to pass unnoticed by Houthis and pirates. However, this makes it challenging for Western warships in the area to conduct rescues if these vessels are attacked.
Mohammad Ali al-Houthi, a prominent Houthi leader, previously advised commercial ships to indicate on their AIS that they have “no connection with Israel” to avoid attacks. The organization claims to target only vessels linked to Israel, but Human Rights Watch found in December that the militants attacked at least five ships without evidence of such affiliations.
Several vessels in the Red Sea seem to be heeding al-Houthi’s suggestion, broadcasting destinations like ‘NO CONTACT ISRAEL’ or ‘NO ISRAEL INVOLVED’. The recent spate of Houthi attacks has significantly disrupted international trade and led to increased costs as major transport companies have halted shipping lanes through the Red Sea.
Why is the Red Sea important?
The Red Sea, home to the Suez Canal at its northern tip and the narrow Bab el-Mandeb Strait at its southern end leading into the Gulf of Aden, is a crucial maritime route. This waterway is heavily trafficked as ships pass through the Suez Canal, facilitating the transport of goods between Asia, Europe, and further destinations.
Significantly, about 40% of the trade between Asia and Europe transits through this region. This includes a substantial volume of oil and diesel fuel, which are vital for Europe’s import needs. Additionally, a variety of food products such as palm oil and grain, along with a vast array of manufactured goods transported via container ships, also navigate through this route.
Overall, the Suez Canal is a key conduit for global commerce, with approximately 30% of the world’s container traffic and over 1 million barrels of crude oil passing through daily, as reported by Freightos Group, a leading global freight booking platform.
(With inputs from agencies)
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