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Chinese tonnage rises in Red Sea despite Houthi attacks

Boxship transits through the Red Sea have plunged, but the proportion of China-linked vessels among them has markedly increased

A total of 17 out of the 27 Chinese containerships still active in Red Sea transits are involved in calling at Russian ports. Many were deployed from other trades following the latest flare-up in the Israel-Palestine conflict

WHILE containership transits through the Red Sea have plunged since the Houthi escalation in December, the proportion of China-linked tonnage appears to have surged, much of it involving trade with Russia.

The situation comes as a leader of the Yemen militants has reportedly explicitly stated they will not attack ships coming from the two countries.

According to vessel-tracking data from Lloyd’s List Intelligence, the number of boxships traversing the area started to nosedive after several top European carriers led by Maersk announced a halt of the Red Sea services on December 17 — from more than 100 ships per week to as low as 36.

But at the same time, smaller vessels owned or managed by Chinese companies began quietly joining what was seen as a lucrative and relatively safe trading lane for Chinese tonnage.

Even as the vast majority of ships from China’s largest and the world’s fouth-biggest carrier, Cosco Shipping, also exited the Red Sea on circumnavigational routes, the share of China-linked boxships transiting the international chokepoint catapulted to 24% and 28%, respectively in the weeks starting January 1 and January 8.

This is far above the sub-15% levels of previous weeks. The calculation does not include tonnage beneficially owned by Chinese lessors, but practically controlled by foreign operators.



Significantly, 17 out of the 27 Chinese-related vessels identified by Lloyd’s List as still passing through the Red Sea since mid-December have involved port calls in Russia.

Container trade with Russia does not necessarily violate Western sanctions on Moscow, which largely apply to select industries within the consumer goods space. Some technologies, dual-use items and luxury goods, for example, cannot be exported to the federation.

Some of these ships plying the China-Russia route were already revealed in a previous Lloyd’s List article on January 9.

Others include the 2,400 teu Hui Da 9 (IMO: 9918107) and Hui Fa (IMO: 9714939), both owned by Chinese owner Fujian Huihai Shipping, according to vessel-ownership data.

Both had earlier served routes from China to the Russian Far East, but switched to transiting the Suez Canal toward St. Petersburg, respectively, in October and November last year.

Hui Da 9 subsequently sailed southbound through Suez again and arrived at Duqm, Oman on January 6. It is now northbound once more, waiting at the southern end of the canal for entry. Hui Fa last traversed the Red Sea in mid-January and is currently heading eastward in the Arabian Sea.

Lloyd’s List was unable to reach Fujian Huihai Shipping for comment.

Additionally, vessels including RC Ocean (IMO: 9233636), TB Fengze (IMO: 9178290), Hong Chang Sheng (IMO: 9178525) and UGL Guangzhou (IMO: 9249221), which previously served intra-Asia routes, have been deployed on routes calling at Russian European ports after the latest flare-up in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Another ship, the 1,740 teu A Daisen (IMO: 9433066), owned by Transfar Shipping, which is linked to Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, was pulled from the transpacific in September 2022 and redeployed toward Türkiye. But since October, it has been plying Middle East routes, shuttling between JeddahDjibouti and Hodeidah, Yemen.

A senior Transfar executive said the ship is not operated by his company but chartered out to a different firm. He declined to comment further.

Muhammad al-Bakhiti, a member of the Houthi political bureau, told Russian media Izvestia today that the Iran-backed militia will guarantee safe passage for vessels from Russia and China in the Red Sea.

“As far as ships from all other countries, including Russia and China, are concerned, their navigation in the region is under no threat whatsoever,” he was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, China’s Ministry of Commerce also said today that it will co-operate with relevant parties to ensure the security of shipping in the Red Sea.

The news has been widely circulated in the Chinese shipping community, with some believing it could prompt more of the country’s ships to take the key trade artery connecting Europe and Asia.

Chinese carrier China United Lines has already launched a Red Sea express service, with the 2011-built, 2,758 teu CUL Manila (IMO: 9571313), aiming to capitalise on the sky-high freight rates there.

An executive at the company said the Liberia-flagged ship will also be equipped with an extra-large Chinese national flag “to exhibit on the bridge mast during daytime”.

The vessel has just exited the Malacca Strait and is expected to arrive in early February at Jeddah’s Red Sea Gateway Terminal, where Cosco Shipping has a stake.

Vessel-tracking data shows several Chinese ships passing Yemeni waters are also emphasising their Chinese identity in their Automatic Identification System description, such as “All Chinese”, to mitigate the threat of assault.

After coming under air strikes from the UK and US, the Houthis have embarked on a campaign of reprisal, striking at multiple commercial vessels entering their range this week and scoring hits on identified targets including three US-owned ships.

This is expected to further deter shipowners and charterers from venturing into the Red Sea.

On the containership front, as of January 18, only 17 vessels have been tracked transiting the Red Sea this week, with just one related to China.

However, these numbers are slightly depressed as some ships temporarily switch off their AIS signals around the Bab el Mandab Strait area before being picked up again later in their voyage. 

And at least one Chinese ship was observed entering the Gulf of Aden. The AIS destination of China-flagged 4,380 teu Ren Jian 16 (IMO: 9450911) reads: DJJIB [Djibouti], CHINESE COMPANY.


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