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Ships in Red Sea declare 'all Chinese' in bid to avoid Houthi attacks

Ships in Red Sea declare 'all Chinese' in bid to avoid Houthi attacks
Matthew Loh Jan 15, 2024,

Several cargo ships and tankers in the Red Sea have been broadcasting that their crew is fully Chinese, seemingly hoping the affiliation with Beijing will persuade Yemeni rebels not to attack.

At least nine such ships approaching or crossing the Red Sea rewrote their destinations to declare that their crew is "CHINESE" or "ALL CHINESE" on their automatic identification system, the global tracker required by the international maritime convention.

Five of these ships were first identified by Bloomberg. Business Insider found at least four other vessels in or close to the Red Sea signaling similar messages on Sunday evening.

For example, the bulk carrier Great Ocean, which frequently travels to Chinese ports and flies the Liberian flag, wrote that it had an "ALL CHINESE CREW."

Another ship, the bulk carrier Dias, which also flies the Liberian flag and primarily traveled to ports in Ukraine and China last year, signaled "CHINA" while sailing near the Red Sea.

Of the 9 ships Bloomberg and BI identified, one has a Chinese name. BI could not immediately verify the nationalities of the crew on these nine ships.

Ships that exited the region as of Sunday have since switched their AIS destinations back to normal.

The new practice indicates that owners or crews of these ships believe that links to China may help them appear sympathetic to Palestinians in Gaza or the Houthis, who have since November been ramping up attacks in the Red Sea.

If true, it's also in line with a nationalist push from Beijing to portray China as being well-loved around the world for outwardly staying neutral in global conflict and maintaining positive relations with poorer nations.

China has been critical of Israel's bombardment and invasion of Gaza, and recently pushed back against the US and UK's deadly series of strikes against Houthi targets on Thursday.

The strikes were carried out in response to attacks on international vessels by the Houthis, who say they are responding to the war in Gaza.

Ships get creative to dodge Houthis

At least two ships in the area also declared themselves to be affiliated with Russia, another country that publicly criticized strikes on the Houthis.

This development echoes a tactic often used by civilian vessels sailing through the Gulf of Aden, where crews manually enter their AIS destinations as "ARMED GUARD ONBOARD" to deter pirate attacks.

Trackers show that more than a dozen vessels continue to display the "ARMED GUARD ONBOARD" status even as they exit the Gulf of Aden and navigate the Red Sea.

A shipping industry advisory in December indicated that more vessels are hiring private armed guards amid the wave of Houthi attacks.

Some ships have been turning off their AIS trackers as they enter the region, hoping to slip unnoticed past Houthis and pirates. But the industry cautioned that it will be harder for Western warships patrolling the area to mount a rescue if the vessels go dark and are attacked.

Mohammad Ali al-Houthi, a prominent leader of the Houthi organization, previously told commercial ships to indicate on their AIS that they have "no connection with Israel" if they wanted to avoid being attacked.

The organization says it only assaults vessels with links to Israel. However, Human Rights Watch in December found the militants attacked at least five ships with no evidence of such affiliations.

Still, several vessels in the Red Sea appear to be taking up al-Houthi's suggestion, broadcasting destinations like "NO CONTACT ISRAEL" or "NO ISRAEL INVOLVED."

The spate of Houthi attacks has significantly disrupted international trade and introduced surging costs as major transport companies halted shipping lanes through the Red Sea.

An estimated 90% of container ships that would have sailed through the Suez Canal are now diverting the long way around to the southern tip of Africa, Simon Hearney, a senior manager at maritime research consultancy Drewry, told the Associated Press.