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Sino-Russian boxships continue using Red Sea despite Houthi threat

A batch of China-controlled containerships destined for Russia ports continue to use the Suez Canal as their passageway

Claims that Chinese ships are more easily avoiding Houthi attacks remain unproven. However, reports of Cosco recently suspending services to Israel have fuelled speculation

A FLEET of containerships operated or managed by Chinese companies continues to ply the Red Sea route connecting Asia and Europe, despite Houthi militants’ attacks on merchant vessels since December.

One such ship was recently cited by a leader of the Yemeni rebels as an example of a vessel cooperating with the group’s safe passage “solution” — that it will not attack ships if they deny links to Israel.

In a tweet, Muhammad Ali al-Houthi demanded ships broadcast a “we have no relationship to Israel” message, presumably via AIS. He claimed a containership with the name starting Xin and IMO number  9139907 had complied and successfully transited the Bab el Mandab Strait.

Lloyd’s List Intelligence data shows the only vessel matching that description is 3,429 teu Xin He Lu 1 (IMO: 9139907), currently off Singapore with an AIS destination of Taicang, China. It entered the Suez Canal on December 24, after leaving Novorossiysk, Russia a week earlier, and exited the Gulf of Aden five days later.

The beneficial owner is unknown but the technical and ISM manager is Safe Ships, based in Qingdao, China.

The company manages a fleet of 22 anonymously owned vessels, including 12 smaller containerships, two general cargo carriers and eight dry bulkers.

Most of the boxships serve Sino-Russian trades and several have recently transited or are about to transit the Red Sea.

Sister ship Xin He Lu 2 (IMO: 9139921) left China’s Taicang on December 22 and is now in the Mandeb Strait. OVP Taurus (IMO: 9241205) passed through Suez in early January after departing Bronka, Russia on December 16, and is now sailing in the Arabian Sea.

Shun Long (IMO: 9159646) left Nansha, China on November 29 and is headed for the Aden Gulf with an AIS destination of the Egyptian-controlled canal, while Hong Prosperity (IMO: 9256418) left St. Petersburg on December 19 and is at El Dekheila, Egypt.

Safe Ships did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, ships of another Chinese carrier specialising in Russian trades, NewNew Shipping, also do not appear to have rerouted around Africa, even facing the Red Sea tensions.

Lloyd’s List understands it recently chartered in the 2,045 teu Wan Xing Da (IMO: 9144328), previously used on China’s domestic trades.

It reached Singapore on December 23 and the Aden Gulf on January 2. It has since passed through Suez and is in the Mediterranean Sea with an AIS destination of St. Petersburg.

Two of its ships listed as serving China-St Petersburg routes on its website, 2,741 teu Xin Xin Tian 1 (IMO: 9320025) and 3,534 teu Newnew Star (IMO: 9353228), transited south and northbound through Suez in mid and late December respectively. The former remains at destination, while the latter is nearing Sri Lanka.

NewNew Shipping did not respond to requests for comment.

The Houthis claim to attack only ships going to and from Israel, in protest against its war in Gaza, though it has been hard to establish such links with ships attacked so far. 

The US said in December that Tehran was “deeply involved” in planning the attacks in one of shipping’s most important waterways, helping the Houthis choose targets.

China maintain good ties with Iran and Russia. And Moscow has sought to deepen economic and political bonds with both countries since invading Ukraine.

Unverified reports and videos circulated on Chinese social media of ships with Chinese names avoiding Houthi hostility.

China’s largest shipping company, Cosco, reportedly suspended Israel services because of the threat to vessels.

Amir Shani, deputy president at the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, representing more than 5,000 businesses, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying that the Chinese firm notified his organisation’s member firms of the decision.

Cosco did not respond to Lloyd’s List’s request for comment.

Vessel tracking data shows two of its 14,000 teu ships, Cosco Shipping Kilimanjaro (IMO: 9757852) and CSCL Uranus (IMO: 9467304), entered the Red Sea earlier this month, currently at Aqaba, Jordan and nearing Jeddah, Saudi Arabia respectively.

However, the vast majority of Cosco’s Red Sea ships continue to sail around the Cape of Good Hope.

Analysis of Lloyd’s List Intelligence data shows an average of just 4.2 containerships have crossed the Mandeb Strait since the attacks escalated on December 17, down from 15.4 in the previous half month. Significantly fewer major carrier operated larger vessels are traversing the route.

Additional reporting by Bridget Diakun


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