Beijing’s response to the brewing humanitarian crisis involving Indian sailors, stranded off the coast in China for seven months now, has been appalling, to say the least. The Indian sailors are caught in the crossfire as China and Australia are engaged in a worsening trade war. As many as 40 Indian seafarers on two cargo vessels — MV Jag Anand and MV Anastasia — have been stranded in waters off the Chinese ports of Jingtang and Caofeidian in the northern province of Hebei since June. The problem is that China has been refusing permission to the crew to de-board and enter China citing the Covid-19 protocol. The ships have not been allowed to discharge their cargo and the crew to disembark either, impacting their mental and physical health. Though the shipping companies have made alternative arrangements for replacement of the crew, the Chinese authorities are blocking it. It is intriguing that some other cargo ships, which had entered the Chinese coasts after the Indian ships had arrived have actually managed to discharge cargo and leave. This gives rise to a suspicion that the treatment being meted out to the Indian crew may be linked to the ongoing border tensions. The humanitarian crisis, which has left stranded cargo as well as sailors on the high seas, is a fallout of the China-Australia trade war. China, which has so far procured coal from Australia, has refused the consignment following growing diplomatic hostilities. As a result, over 400 sailors and two million tonnes of coal are stuck on ships off China’s northeast coast.
The shipment is spread across 21 bulk carriers and is valued at around $200 million and 15 of the ships have been waiting since June, stranding the crew on board. Many of the sailors on the Australian vessels are Indian. As the two nations are engaged in diplomatic sabre-rattling, the Indian sailors are made to suffer for no fault of theirs. Apart from the violation of labour codes and human rights, the blockade has also halted the movement of other ships in the maritime corridor, affecting global supply chains. It appears that Beijing is using the crisis to arm-twist Australia and India since both the nations have joined the United States and Japan to become part of the new grouping—Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad). This is significant geopolitically because four of the biggest democracies with stakes in the region are collectively committed to countering China’s growing aggression and territorial hegemony in the region. If mutual interests and concerns find convergence, this alliance has the potential to become Nato-like in Asia in the long run to contain China’s expansionist designs.
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