China’s Shipping Goes Dark, Enabling Criminality and Militarism

China is now hoarding its shipping geolocation data, which will only increase concerns in Washington about Beijing’s intentions
November 29, 2021 Updated: December 1, 2021

News Analysis

Beijing’s hoarding of ships’ geolocation data is another indicator of its future plans to use commercial shipping for military purposes. The United States and allies should demand more transparency.

China’s shipping fleet is going dark, potentially endangering maritime transport, and causing major problems for supply chain managers and shipping coordinators as they struggle to map shipping flows in Chinese ports with insufficient data. Beijing is supposedly imposing the blackout due to national security concerns, which indicate that it will continue to illegally use its commercial shipping fleet for military purposes. But the ship geolocation blackout could also help China’s huge illegal fishing fleets.

Beijing’s “gray zone” tactics—such as the surrounding of islands it plans to take by its maritime militia disguised as fishing boats—along with its coast guard and then further afield, its navy, is called its “cabbage” strategy. China’s fishing fleets—for example, its illegal night-time squid trawlers—often turn off their automatic identification system (AIS) when fishing in other countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs).

Even more shocking, Beijing’s strategy to launch missiles from containerized cargo is arguably a violation of the Law of Naval Warfare.

AIS provides geolocation data to the world’s public for ship safety, tracking, and logistics. When Beijing instead turns off China’s AIS shore-based receivers, and ship-based transponders, to facilitate military aggression or the theft of economic resources in another country’s EEZ, it is not only unethical, but sometimes a violation of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Restricting access to AIS data effectively restricts public knowledge of state-sponsored criminality.

Beijing’s new national security crackdown against sharing data with foreigners will facilitate its use of commercial shipping for criminal and military purposes. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) information security (InfoSec) rules are now extending beyond consumer tech companies, such as ride-hailing firm Didi Chuxing, to affect the visibility of ships close to China’s shores in what should be seen as a danger to shipping, a boon to criminality, and a threat to trade and peace.

Beijing Degrades Its Provision of Commercial Maritime Data

The quantity of AIS data that geolocate ships near China and is distributed to foreigners has plummeted due to espionage fears that are apparently driving the crackdown by the CCP. Fixed-point terrestrial AIS receivers on China’s coastline and interior waterways, which used to transmit the locations of nearby ships dozens of times per minute, are now mostly dark. This is forcing the international community to rely on satellite data that only provides the locations of a subset of the best-equipped ships, much less frequently.

According to Lloyd’s List maritime intelligence analyst Jean-Charles Gordon, “we are only getting a few data points per hour from satellites versus terrestrial which collects data every few seconds.”

Cichen Shen of Lloyd’s List noted in an article that “China is still capturing all the AIS signals albeit not sharing them.”

He believes that the continued AIS “data gap could cause headaches and dangers for foreign companies trying to monitor their fleet or the underlying trade flows in Chinese waters because of a loss in visibility.”

The failure to provide foreign shipping companies with an even playing field will put them at a disadvantage in Chinese shipping markets, and is arguably a violation of World Trade Organization rules.

The Financial Times summarized the views of Anastassis Touros, who leads the AIS team at MarineTraffic, that “decreased visibility would likely cause more congestion at Chinese ports, which have been gridlocked amid poor weather and pandemic-related disruptions, because it would become harder to time vessel arrivals with low-traffic periods.”

Epoch Times Photo
Cargo containers are stacked at Yantian port in Shenzhen in China’s southern Guangdong Province on June 21, 2021. (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Beijing Thinks Spies Are Using Its Data

The culprit, according to Cichen Shen, is a new Personal Information Protection Law that took effect on Nov. 1. He described it as “part of China’s legislative efforts to control how and whether its sovereign data can be accessed by domestic and foreign organisations.”

The Times described the new data protection regime as the restriction of sensitive information overseas through the requirement of advance vetting of important data transmissions through a security assessment by the country’s data watchdog.

The Times cited Chinese state media that warned, about AIS stations in coastal Guangdong, that the “intelligence extracted from this data endangers China’s economic security and the harm cannot be ignored.”

According to the Times, “Authorities interviewed in the report said foreign intelligence agencies, companies and think-tanks use the system to keep tabs on China’s military vessels and analyse economic activity by surveying cargo traffic.”

The Dramatic Drop in Chinese Ship Data Transmissions

Lloyd’s List noted that Chinese data providers are shutting down their AIS transmissions to foreigners just in case they could be considered in violation of the new rules. It reported, for the first week of November, 12 percent fewer AIS positions recorded in China’s EEZ, which normally extends 200 nautical miles from the shoreline.

According to the Times, the number of AIS signals dropped from ships in Chinese waters from 15 million per day in October, to just more than 1 million in early November.

International shipping supply chain managers will now find it more difficult to plan shipping routes, logistics, and throughput in Chinese ports. But if the ban expands further, it could seriously endanger shipping and violate Beijing’s international commitments. China’s allies could follow, extending the degradation of previously freely available shipping data globally.

Already, according to Greg Poling, a maritime law expert at the Center for Security and International Studies, “Vietnam doesn’t feed much shore based AIS data to the commercial providers so in its waters we’re wholly reliant on satellite.”

According to Professor James Kraska, who has dual appointments at the U.S. Naval War College and Harvard University, “AIS is the primary means” of visibility into global ship movements, and is required by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) for ships of at least 300 gross tons (GT). He said that “turning it off makes maritime domain awareness more challenging.”

Most Chinese ships near Chinese shores have kept their AIS transponders on, according to Poling.

The transponders, also known as transceivers, can receive and send geolocation data. This makes them visible to satellites and able to broadcast their positions to other nearby ships.

But some ships use weak transmitters that can only be seen by the shore-based, not satellite, receivers.

Analysis of satellite data by non-profit Global Fishing Watch shows that illegal fishing ships from China and North Korea do turn off, or fail to install, AIS transponders.

Chinese fishing vessels
Illegal Chinese fishing boats are seen in neutral waters in Ganghwa island, South Korea, on June 10, 2016. (South Korean Defense Ministry via Getty Images)

As Beijing is turning off China’s AIS data flows to foreigners at a more systematic level, international shipping managers must send shipments in and out of Chinese ports with less information about local maritime traffic conditions than they had previously done. Academics and non-profits concerned about overfishing and Beijing’s subsidized and militarized fishing militia, will have less data necessary to track and publicize Beijing’s transgressions.

There is no theoretical reason for Beijing to stop the Chinese data ban at terrestrial AIS. It could almost as easily, in the name of national security, limit the transmission of its shipping industry’s maritime locations transmitted by satellites or the ships themselves, anywhere in the world.

While the AIS transmitters of Chinese shipping have in general not been shut off to foreign receivers, this is a possibility that should be planned for given deteriorating relations between Beijing and most of the rest of the world, and the CCP’s sledgehammer approach, where a scalpel might have sufficed.

Professor Salvatore Mercagliano at Campbell University wrote that a requirement by Beijing that ships turn off their AIS, if Beijing extended their data ban in this way, would be a violation of its international commitments.

China’s AIS Blackout Is Not Dangerous, According to Experts

“The blackout imposed by the PRC [People’s Republic of China] deals with the relay and transmission from shore of AIS data,” Dr. Mercagliano wrote. “Ships are still broadcasting and any vessel can query another so there is no concern about navigation hazard. What happens with AIS, is that there are shore operators that have receivers that gather the AIS data.”

Chinese shore-based receivers have in the past shared the AIS data they collect with international data aggregators such as Marine Traffic, IHS Markit, and Windward, according to Poling.

Now those data sources have less data. “The issue is the quality of info,” wrote Salvatore. “The loss of this data makes it difficult for freight forwarders and shippers to track cargoes and coordinate elements of the supply chain.”

Poling wrote that “the reason the AIS blackout isn’t a threat to safety of navigation is that the ships haven’t actually stopped broadcasting.” And that “Chinese authorities have just banned the sale of shore-based AIS to commercial firms abroad.”

The shore-based receivers and harbor masters still see the vessels, according to Poling. The vessels can also see each other when they are within range, which varies depending on the quality of their transmission and reception devices.

That the China shore-based data is now hoarded instead of shared with international data aggregation platforms “makes it moderately harder for shipping companies and insurers to track their ships when they’re near the Chinese harbors for purposes of planning logistics and the like (but they can see them fine everywhere else by satellite),” Poling wrote, “and it makes it a little harder for those of us in academia to keep an eye on Chinese activity (but again, we still have satellite-based and the shore based data from all the other coastal states).”

Poling acknowledged that individual Chinese ships could turn off their AIS transmitters, but claimed that there was no systematic evidence of them doing so. He said that China’s navy and coast guard are under no legal obligation to keep their AIS on, so they could go dark on occasion.

“But we don’t see evidence that the commercial boats or [Chinese maritime] militia systematically turn the[m] off. The reason they disappear from commercial platforms as they get farther from China’s coast is that most of them are equipped with weaker Class-B transceivers, not the Class-A required by the IMO [International Maritime Organization] for international transit.”

The weaker Class-B transceivers sometimes cannot be registered by satellites so are only visible from shore or ship if they are close enough, according to Poling. “Chinese domestic law requires AIS on all ships for safety, so the fishing boats get the cheapest option to tick that box.”

Chinese Shipping That Goes Dark Increases International Tension

Decreasing visibility of commercial ships near China is a self-imposed casualty and follow-on effect of Beijing’s increasing military aggression. As part of this aggression, the CCP has attempted to hide its military activities behind steel-reinforced fishing boats that are in fact a maritime militia and extension of the Chinese navy.

Chinese vessels at South China Sea
Chinese vessels, believed to be manned by Chinese maritime militia personnel, are seen at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea, on March 27, 2021. (Philippine Coast Guard/Handout via Reuters)

Perhaps this explains why China is one of the only countries that sees release of its near-shore AIS data as a national security threat.

However, democracies are on to this ruse, and developing new ways to identify which of China’s thousands of fishing boats are associated with the maritime militia, and which are not.

Poling’s own research, conducted with coauthors Tabitha Grace Mallory, Harrison Prétat, and in conjunction with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, has used AIS data as indicators of a particular ship’s membership in the militia.

“On-site photography and video, as well as ship-to-ship automatic identification system (AIS) data collection, offer the greatest potential to directly identify militia vessels and document their behavior,” according to Poling’s study, published on Nov. 18. “This both enhances the opportunities for follow-up research and creates an immediate impact by revealing the militia’s size, scope, and activities to a broad audience in a convincing fashion.”

Beijing was likely not amused. Its original use of fishing boats, militia, and other naval assets for aggressive purposes caused a higher level of international scrutiny, including academic examination of AIS data from militia vessels, which Beijing in turn called espionage. That national security justification led to Beijing’s overdone InfoSec that will make imports and exports to China more difficult.

Lloyd’s List coverage of the AIS blackout cited an espionage case in the shipping sector that “has added to the concerns” of Chinese data providers that is leading them to cut off their data transmissions in anticipation.

“An unnamed ‘foreign consultancy’ was said to have been caught by [the] state security department in May to provide its compatriot ‘spy agency’ with shipping and cargo data obtained from its Chinese business partners,” according to Lloyd’s.

When asked whether his research and prior studies had caused Beijing’s crackdown on terrestrial AIS in China, Poling replied, “I think it [is] likely that the whole body of work from us and others in Vietnam probably contributed to the national security rationale. But I think the proximate trigger early this month (before anyone in China knew about our report) was the new information security law.”

Thus the United States, China, and their allies appear to be in a classic downward spiral of insecurity and fears of exactly the type that increase the chance of military conflict.

“What the PRC has just done is bad, goes against global trends of best practices and progress, and is part of larger ill winds of opacity and undermining of international rules and norms under Xi [Jinping],” according to one U.S. military source who asked to remain anonymous.

China’s aggression and fear are economically decoupling itself, or worse, in an erosion of the international system of trade that could be an own goal of epic proportions, and part of a downward spiral of mutual suspicion toward military conflict.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Anders Corr
Anders Corr has a bachelor's/master's in political science from Yale University (2001) and a doctorate in government from Harvard University (2008). He is a principal at Corr Analytics Inc., publisher of the Journal of Political Risk, and has conducted extensive research in North America, Europe, and Asia. His latest books are “The Concentration of Power: Institutionalization, Hierarchy, and Hegemony” (2021) and “Great Powers, Grand Strategies: the New Game in the South China Sea" (2018).