’Hidden mystery’: China’s disappearing ships

Thousands of ships have apparently vanished in the seas around China only to reappear days later, with a new law in Beijing blamed.

Actors have gone missing in China — as have tennis stars — only to mysteriously reappear weeks or months later.

Now entire ships have begun to vanish as they enter Chinese waters.

Since the start of the month, vessels from around the globe, from tankers to cargo ships, have disappeared from global tracking systems as they have entered some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes close to Chinese ports.

As the ships leave Chinese waters they reappear again.

By some estimates, tracking pings from ships near China have fallen by 90 per cent in just a few weeks.

An increasing desire by Beijing to isolate itself from the rest of the world is being blamed for the blank spot.

State television has raised concerns that foreign organisations could be plundering “valuable military and economic intelligence” via maritime tracking systems.

There are now fears China’s new found reluctance to share information on vessels in its waters could impact global supply chains as shipping companies have less visibility on where their boats are.

Supply chains were already under “great stress,” said a spokesman from an impacted marine tracking firm. “It doesn’t need another factor to make it more difficult”.

Ships began to vanish from November 1

The drop off in signals from ships in and near China began to be noticed at the beginning of the month.

On November 1, a new law came into effect in China restricting foreign access to any data – potentially including shipping data – deemed to have a bearing on national or economic security.

On the same day, a report on the government controlled China Central Television (CCTV) Focus news program stated that “suspicious radio equipment” had been found in the home of radio enthusiast close to a military base and commercial port in Zhanjiang in the country’s south, west of Hong Kong.

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The broadcast said the radio ham had installed the equipment which would aid in the global tracking of ships “in real time via the internet”.

The man had no qualms about his high tech delivery. After all, collecting data on the movement of ships is nothing new.

The major way maritime vessels are tracked is through the automatic identification system, or AIS, which is a kind of air traffic control for the seas. It uses transceivers fitted on vessels to transmit their position. This data is then picked up by other vessels, satellites or AIS base stations on land.

The information can show an individual vessel’s position, speed, name and destination. It’s considered vital in modern shipping and allows ships, particularly in busy sea lanes, to know where the position of other vessels are to avoid collisions. It also gives an overview of maritime congestion and allows anyone who wants to, to keep a tab on commercial vessels.

The International Maritime Organisation requires all vessels of 300 or more gross tonnage to have an AIS transceiver.

China says new base stations as ‘hidden mystery’

China has long hosted AIS base stations. The more AIS base stations, the more accurate the information on a ship’s location.

But authorities have become concerned at compact AIS base stations, such as the one in Zhanjiang, popping up on people’s balconies. The CCTV report suggested the information they could pick up was a “hidden mystery” that could be exploited by nefarious overseas governments

There are now hundreds ofbase stations dotted around China’s coastline and near navigable inland waterways and Beijing doesn’t know where they all are or who is paying for them.

The CCTV report said some maritime data firms “have long served overseas spy agencies”.

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“Foreign institutions, enterprises, and even spy intelligence agencies wantonly grabbing important data resources in related fields of our country have brought serious harm to national security,” it stated.

Controversial data law may have led to disruption

The shutting down of many of these base stations looks to be have been one consequence of the new data privacy legislation.

The laws mean that data firms have to receive Beijing’s approval before personal or sensitive information leaves the country.

A combination of the removal of many of the hundreds of now possibly illegal base stations – which may in future need government approval – and a concern from data providers that they might fall foul of the new laws should they transmit data overseas appears to have led the AIS coverage of China’s shoreline to suddenly reduce.

Information from maritime data firm VesselsValue, reported in newspaper the Financial Times, found pings from AIS transceivers on ships in Chinese waters went from around 15 million a day in late October to just over one million now. In effect, many tankers, container ships and bulk carriers have gone dark on tracking systems.

China has insisted that AIS base stations are still operating in China, but only those that it deems to be legally constructed.

Information is still coming in from ships around major ports such as Zhanjiang, Hong Kong and Shanghai where critical base stations are located.

Just weeks maritime tracking systems showed ships powering up and down China’s coastline. But now, between these major ports, all is dark or information is not accurate on some systems despite vessels still plying those sea lanes.

Satellites are continuing to pick up signals from ship transceivers but in congested waterways and close to shore it’s base stations that give a more accurate view, Anastassis Touros of maritime data firm MarineTraffic told CNN.

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“We need terrestrial stations in order to have a better picture, a more high-quality picture.”

Big impact on global supply chains

Georgios Hatzimanolis, also from MarineTraffic, said an already stressed global supply chain would be further hobbled by the loss of instantaneous and accurate data from China. This might see more congestion at ports and slower docking and unloading times.

“As we move into the Christmas period, it will have a really big impact on supply chains and this is the most important element right now,” he said.

Only China seems to have an issue with the collection and dissemination of AIS data. Other nations seem relatively unruffled by information on ships in their waters being freely available or even having base stations located on residential balconies.

There are safeguards in place, for instance, should vessels not want to transmit their positions globally. One of the simplest is just turn off their transceiver which military ships often do when they are on active duty.

However, China is increasingly trying to limit the amount of information that can seep out of the country, or at least have oversight of that data.

It is thought Beijing could be uncomfortable with the level of information AIS systems collect and worries it may give an insight into the number of ships and cargo volume at its ports.

But Mr Touros told CNN that he hoped the sudden lack of AIS shipping data may only be a temporary blip.

“Whenever you have a new law, we have a time period where everyone needs to check out if things are okay”.

But right now, at one of the busiest times of year in some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, a lot of vessels have – digitally at least – disappeared.

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