Monday, March 4, 2024

Investigating the Chinese Ship That “Accidently” Hit Undersea Lines

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Finland and Estonia are formally investigating a Chinese vessel that drug its anchor over 100 nautical miles though the Gulf of Finland, hitting telecom and gas lines.

The Chinese-owned container ship, Newnew Polar Bear, and a Russian cargo vessel (the Sevmorput) transiting the Gulf of Finland in early October are alleged to have been in areas where damage to an undersea natural gas pipeline and two telecommunications cables took place by the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation and by the Swedish government.

The Newnew Polar Bear has subsequently become the focus of the investigation. After departing the Baltic Sea, the ship was photographed arriving in the Russian port of Arkhangelsk with its port side anchor apparently missing on 22 October.

Two days later, the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation announced that they had retrieved an anchor embedded in the seabed next to the damaged pipeline in co-operation with the Finnish Navy and Finnish Border Guard. According to the Fins, the Newnew Polar Bear is the prime suspect for the incident.

A few days prior, the Swedish government confirmed that an undersea telecommunications cable between Sweden and Estonia had been damaged “by means of external force or tampering”. It noted that the damage occurred within the Estonian economic zone.

In both instances, authorities and the Reuters news agency confirmed that only two ships – the Newnew Polar Bear and the Sevmorput – were present at the sites where the damaged occurred around the approximate time when it was detected.

Last week Estonian Defense Minister, Hanno Pevkur, told Swedish public broadcaster, Sveriges Television, that the incidents with the (Balticconnector) pipeline and the two communications cables in the Gulf of Finland are connected.

“They have been destroyed by human hands, probably by an anchor. We have mapped and filmed the seabed and have a very good overview of what happened,” he said.

Pevkur added that if the anchor hung loose for more than 100 nautical miles (185 kilometers) between the damaged cables and pipeline, it is difficult to accept that it just an accident. “The captain understood that there was something wrong, so then the question we have to find an answer to is whether this was on purpose,” the Estonian minister said.

On Monday, The Baltic Times reported that Estonia and Finland have formally requested the opportunity to send representatives to China to investigate the Newnew Polar Bear which is scheduled to arrive in the port of Tianjin, China this week. Russian authorities including Vladmir Putin have rejected any assertion that Sevmorput was connected with the incidents.

The Newnew Polar Bear was laid-down in 2005 as the second of four Eilbek-class feeder container ships commissioned by the German shipowner Hansa Hamburg. It passed through a succession of operators to another German 0wner in 2017 when it was renamed Baltic Fulmar.

In June 2023, Baltic Fulmar was sold to Chinese shipowner, Hainan Xin Xin Yang Shipping, reflagged to Hong Kong, and renamed Newnew Polar Bear. It is not clear whether Hainan Xin Xin Yang has connections with the Chinese government but if so, they have been clouded by the early November transfer of the vessel to a new owner. It is now operated by Torgmoll, a Chinese logistics company with offices in Shanghai and Moscow.

What will the upshot of the Newnew Polar Bear incidents be? Bryan Clark, maritime expert and Director of Center for Defense Concepts and Technology at the Hudson Institute says little of substance in the near term.

“The Gulf of Finland is shallow. The bottom is relatively flat so it’s not hard to tell what happened down there, you can easily survey it. It’s not surprising that a Chinese ship would do this. China often does these kinds of things where they know that they’ll be found out. They’re just sort of daring the international community to do something about it. It’s as if they want to send a signal – ‘We did this to these guys, we can do it to anybody.”

Clark points out that the strategic situation has changed in the Baltic Sea since the advent of the Ukraine War. The Gulf of Finland has become a “hot topic” within NATO as Finland and Sweden join the Alliance.

The infrastructure under the Gulf’s waters will now connect one portion of NATO to what will soon be new NATO territories. Owing to its geography, Finland in particular depends on the undersea communication and natural gas links. “Now that Finland is in NATO, the concern is that the Gulf of Finland represents a way that it can be cut off from the rest of NATO,” Clark explains.

Finland is now associated with the Western Alliance and as such may be viewed differently by China. It has had difficulty with the Chinese previously and these alleged incidents “may just be an example of different parts of the Chinese government apparatus pushing back on the perceived enemies of China using this sort of grey-zone tactic,” he adds.

Regardless, Clark expects Finland will pursue an Admiralty-claim under international maritime law for damages done to its infrastructure by the Newnew Polar Bear. It will be a drawn-out process Clark says. “If you’re doing it with China, you can plan on endless appeals and a reticence to reach a settlement.”

Shifting the ownership of the vessel to a new Chinese owner signals a very low probability that any wrongdoing will be acknowledged and may put further distance between the ship’s direction and any association with the government in Bejing.

China’s extensive record of using maritime militia vessels (chartered by its government but putatively privately owned) to intimidate its Pacific neighbors in the Philippines and elsewhere suggests a corollary pattern wherein claims against Chinese vessels are rarely resolved to the satisfaction of claimants Clark says.

More likely, Finland, Sweden and Estonia will pursue public relations campaign against Chinese shipping, highlighting the evidence they have gathered and exposing the alleged incidents both in international courts and the international court of public opinion.

Finland in particular is likely to follow such a course Clark believes. “Finland very much has a sense of being an island nation that depends on offshore energy and information access. They can’t let it go. They have to respond, to put offenders on notice that they have seen the activity and make a case so that if retaliation is needed down the road, they have laid the groundwork for it.”

The Gulf of Finland is under the cognizance of Finland (within its 12 nautical miles of territorial water), Sweden, Estonia and Russia. Exclusive Economic Zones of these bordering countries further divide the portion of the Gulf that is not considered international waters and are generally respected, even by Russia Clark says.

As a policy response, Finland and Estonia could restrict Chinese vessels from their territorial waters under UNCLOS (the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) Clark explains. “That could preclude most Chinese traffic from getting into at least part of the Gulf of Finland. If Sweden joined that could prevent Chinese vessels from getting into St. Petersburg.”

Russia is unlikely to say or do much further about such disruptive activity both out of its opposition to an expanded NATO and thanks to its increasing reliance on China for economic and technological support. “Hurting NATO is in Russia’s interest,” Clark affirms, “and they need China more than China needs Russia.”

Whether Finnish and Estonian investigators will be permitted to examine the Newnew Polar Bear in port in Tianjin will be worth watching and, if access is granted, whether it will be delayed for so long that the ship will have been repaired and cleansed of any evidence.

If the evidence is strong enough, NATO will likely issue statements on the matter pointing to adversarial treatment of its newest members by China and Russia. “I think they’ll definitely say something about it once the facts become more clear,” says Clark.

A case that might be presented to the UN’s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) will probably not go forward before late winter, next year Clark believes.

“I think [Finland, Estonia] will do the battle for the media in the meantime. You’ll see a lot of this evidence come out in the media over the next few weeks while the story is still fresh.”

If the claims are true, the brazenness of the actions of the Newnew Polar Bear are what strikes Clark the most he says.

“It’s funny that bad actors will do this kind of stuff. You can get the AIS data [automatic identification system (AIS), an automatic satellite tracking system that uses transceivers on ships to track movements] for any ship as well as historical data for where it’s traveled.”

“Unless they do dark-ship spoofing or other operations, you can figure who was where, when. It’s almost as if the Chinese [ship] saw this as a badge of honor… It’s clear they see detection as a tool in a narrative as opposed to being something to worry about.”

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