Sailors Stranded for Months as China Refuses to Let Coal Ships Unload

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China is vague about why vessels that carried Australian coal to its ports can’t unload their cargo. “We’re all depressed; our mental health is deteriorating,” one sailor said.

MELBOURNE, Australia — For the past six months, Virendrasinh Bhosale, a seafarer from India, has been trapped on a hunk of metal floating off China’s eastern coast.

He is desperate to see his 5-year-old son. “Every night I dream about him and I wake up crying in bed,” he says.

Mr. Bhosale is one of 23 crew members stuck aboard a cargo ship, the Jag Anand, off the port of Jingtang in Hebei Province since June. The ship is carrying about 160,000 tons of Australian coal but has not been granted clearance to unload its cargo.

Crews on an estimated 70 ships loaded with seven million to 10 million tons of Australian coal have not been allowed to disembark in China, according to commercial tracking data. China has cited various factors like the coronavirus and environmental issues. But Beijing has effectively banned Australian coal as tensions between the two countries intensify.

Now, the crewmen appear to be caught in the middle of a geopolitical feud with hundreds of millions of dollars of paid-for coal hanging in the balance.

Untangling who, or what company, is responsible for giving the vessels the green light to leave is difficult. But in the meantime, an estimated 1,400 seafarers are believed to be stranded, according to Australia’s maritime union, and the crews’ health is apparently deteriorating.

“Most of the guys, they don’t come out from their cabins and they are thinking about the worst case possible,” said Gaurav Singh, the navigating officer of the Anastasia, another ship languishing at a Chinese port, Caofeidian, about 31 miles southwest of the Jag Anand.

Eighteen crew members are on board, said Mr. Singh, who like Mr. Bhosale spoke to The New York Times via WhatsApp, a messaging service. “One of the guys tried to commit suicide,” he said, adding: “It’s terrifying. We all are scared.”

via Virendrasinh Bhosale

Last year, according to government statistics, Australia exported nearly $ 10.4 billion worth of coal to China. Though that coal helps fuel China’s voracious economic needs, deteriorating political ties have choked off one conduit.

In April, Australia called for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. A furious China followed over several months with informal bans on a host of Australian goods, including barley, wine and timber. In June, ships hauling Australian coal across the ocean began to be stranded at several Chinese ports, according to analysis from Bloomberg.

When asked at a news conference about the Jag Anand in November, the Chinese Foreign Ministry denied that it was barring the ship from leaving its waters, saying without elaborating that the vessel had not left because of commercial interests. When asked about the delay in processing the rest of the ships, a ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, spoke of concerns over “environmental protection standards.”

The Chinese government has also cited coronavirus concerns in banning foreign ships from performing crew changes at the country’s ports since April. So the pleas of the Jag Anand and the Anastasia to be allowed to conduct such changes have gone nowhere.

“Whether that’s a genuine concern or whether it’s something used by China as a pretext for not doing more is another question,” said Tim Stephens, a maritime law expert at the University of Sydney.

As for Australia, the country’s resources minister, Keith Pitt, told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper last month that the dispute was mainly “a matter for the companies involved.” This month, the trade minister at the time, Simon Birmingham, told Sky News that his department was making “representations” to its Chinese counterparts but noted that the Australian exporters had already been paid, meaning the transaction “has predominantly already taken place, from an Australian perspective.”

The stranded vessels fly international flags but are caught in a web of multinational companies, contractors and subcontractors — a tangle of competing interests that complicates the situation.

The 23-member crew of the Jag Anand has been stuck aboard a cargo ship off Jingtang in Hebei Province, China, since June.
via Virendrasinh Bhosale

The Jag Anand is owned by an Indian company, Great Eastern Shipping. While Great Eastern Shipping employed the crew, it says it cannot unilaterally let the ship leave because the vessel had been chartered out to another company, Cargill, which is based in Minneapolis. It, in turn, had sub-chartered the Jag Anand out to another company.

On the other end of the chain are the buyers for the Australian coal on the Jag Anand: the Chinese company Tangshan Baichi Trading. It bought the cargo from an Australian supplier, Anglo American. When contacted, Great Eastern Shipping and Cargill said the buyer was ultimately responsible for deciding if the Jag Anand could move away from the Jingtang port.

“It’s local law that you have to get approval from the port authority to leave, and one of the conditions of that is that you need approval from the receiver,” said Jan Dieleman, president of Cargill’s ocean transport business. He noted that the receiver could have sold the cargo to others, further complicating the approval process.

Phone calls over two days to contact Tangshan Baichi Trading went unanswered.

The Anastasia is in a similar situation. It flies the Panamanian flag but is owned by Mediterranean Shipping from Switzerland, which chartered out the ship to Jiangsu Steamship, a Chinese company, officials said. The intended receiver of its coal is E-Commodities Holding, incorporated in the British Virgin Islands and listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Each company in the chain said it communicated only with one or two other parties it directly dealt with, and they often said they were unclear about the names of others involved. It’s a deliberately convoluted system, according to Dean Summers of the Maritime Union of Australia.

“Everyone points to the person next to them, and no one takes responsibility,” he said.

A week ago, when China’s state-owned Global Times reported that China’s National Development and Reform Commission had given approval for 10 major power enterprises to import coal “without clearance restrictions, except for Australia,” many in Australia interpreted it as formalizing China’s unofficial ban. (The Global Times article has since been deleted from its website.)

For the Jag Anand, it was the “biggest positive,” said a spokeswoman from Great Eastern Shipping, because the mystery of whether the coal can be unloaded in China at all had apparently been solved. Now, she said, the receiver is looking for a new buyer in another country. If that happens, the crew will be able to disembark at another port.

But to others, the situation is less clear-cut.

Kevin He, the captain of Jiangsu Steamship, the charterer of the Anastasia, said he had not been aware that China banned Australian coal because he had not received any official notification. Mediterranean Shipping, the owner of the Anastasia, also said it had not been aware of any moves to find new buyers for the coal on the ship.

The men on the ships say they are losing hope. On the Jag Anand, Mr. Bhosale said, some have chronic conditions like diabetes and hypertension and their medications have run out. Others have injuries that have been untreated for months. One crew member’s father recently died, and he was unable to attend the funeral. The man’s mother is sick with cancer, Mr. Bhosale said, adding, “We’re all depressed; our mental health is deteriorating.”

A Twitter account documenting the plight of the Anastasia and the Jag Anand has sprung up. Relatives of the men have started a petition to bring them home. But the days stretch out in front of them with no end in sight, and their ships have become de facto prisons.

“We just want to go home,” said Mr. Singh, the Anastasia’s navigating officer. “We haven’t made any mistakes; we have not committed any crimes. We are getting punishment for things we have not done. Why should we suffer for the diplomatic war between two countries?”

Liu Yi contributed research.

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