After remaining stranded, off the coast of China's deep-water international seaport of Jingtang, for over six months, the 23-member Indian crew of MV Jag Anand is expected to arrive home on January 14. After India's persistent parleys with the ship owner, the Great Eastern Shipping Company, the ship set sail to the Chiba port of Japan for a ‘change of crew’ which will release the 23 Indians to return home after completing pandemic-related local formalities. The fate of other 18-member Indian crew aboard MV Anastasia still hangs fire, yet release of this first contingent should be a morale booster for the rest of stranded ships.
To begin with, it is a happy news but also a sad reflection on all concerned companies and regulating agencies. Even stranger is the fact that this delayed relief constitutes but a minuscule of the total of 1,400 crew members aboard 70-plus ships anchored off China's northeastern coastline carrying nearly 10 million tons of Australian coal.
While Chinese port authorities continue to deny them docking rights, Chinese buyers have persuaded these ships to wait and their numbers have kept growing. This cascade has become especially rapid since October when China imposed an unofficial ban on Australian coal and since then, only few ships mostly carrying iron ore, and some carrying coal, have escaped this stern cold shouldering and neglect from both sides.
China maintains that these ships are free to go anywhere and explains its denial for docking in terms of several shipments having “failed to meet environmental standards” as also in view of its general pandemic-related guidelines. The Hebei province — where most of these ships are anchored ashore in Chinese waters — have lately witnessed a spike in pandemic cases leading to stringent control measures and monitoring. But at the same time, Chinese importers — most of them State-owned companies — have already paid for this coal and need it to sustain their recently revived production lines. The confusion gets compounded as these importing firms and port authorities continue to work on cross-purposes.
As regards Australia, it presents a unique example among the developed nations that exports more than it imports from China. China accounts for over 32 percent of Australia's total exports. For 2019-20, this figure stood at $151 billion with its second highest export destination, Japan, accounting for mere $52 billion.
Coal alone, on average, constitutes Australia's exports to China worth $10-14 billion per year. For China, this coal feeds into its enormous industrial manufacturing. This intertwine of economic interests explains this so far subdued Sino-Australian response to addressing this crisis in the making.
Both Canberra and Beijing have meanwhile found an excellent scapegoat: they have put the onus on the maze of merchant shipping companies to resolve this crisis. These include coal importing and exporting firms, owners of ships, their sub-contractors, insurance companies, freight forwarding firms, crew providing firms, flag nations, maritime regulators and others. All of these take time to streamline their complex web of operations based on shared profits and responsibilities. More often than not, their complex web hits aground when faced by exigencies like this.
Moreover, in their approach to such crisis, merchant shipping owners and regulators are driven by limited legal and commercial perspectives. For them, each day of delay imposes financial and efficiency costs where any clogging, like this one, begins to see them minimise their own costs by skirting responsibility, hiding behind legalese.
When these regulators and companies cannot deliver relief, nation-states have to step in, as India did. But India remains an external interlocutor with this network of merchant shipping. Plus, Indian crew remains tied to the fine prints of their complex hiring contracts. All this perhaps calls for redesigning the remit and resources of regulating agencies.
What remains equally puzzling is that in spite of all the pandemic-related angst and anger against Beijing, this crisis have also not triggered any geopolitical rhetoric for censoring China or for redesigning regulating agencies. It has failed to persist in global headlines or reach the UN Security Council.
As neither geopolitical nor commercial interests have triggered any redress of this crisis, it is perhaps time to explore alternate perspectives. India has time and again demonstrated its capacity and intent in evacuating national and foreign citizens from situations of distress. The return of the 23 Indian sailors will mark just one more milestone in this compassion over commerce perspective. However, unlike such earlier cases, the challenge of rescuing all sailors aboard these stranded ships in face of an uncooperative China, remains formidable.