Australia calls on China to resolve standoff over coal ship stranded offshore for five months

Trade minister Simon Birmingham has raised concerns about the welfare of seafarers on a vessel carrying Australian coal delayed in northern China

The Chinese port of Jingtang
The Chinese port of Jingtang. The Indian ship is carrying about 160,000 tonnes of coking coal from Anglo-American’s Queensland mines and arrived in mid-June. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock
The Chinese port of Jingtang. The Indian ship is carrying about 160,000 tonnes of coking coal from Anglo-American’s Queensland mines and arrived in mid-June. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

Last modified on Thu 12 Nov 2020 06.19 EST

The Morrison government has called on Beijing to help resolve a “deeply troubling” standoff involving an Indian ship carrying Australian coal that has been stranded for five months at a Chinese port.

The trade minister, Simon Birmingham, raised concerns about the welfare of the Indian seafarers who remained on board, while making a broader appeal to the Chinese government to cease “what seems to be a recurring targeting of some Australian industries”.

The Indian-flagged vessel carrying coal from Australia arrived at the port of Jingtang in northern China in mid-June but has been waiting five months to be allowed to berth, according to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

The ITF has described the situation as a humanitarian crisis, saying the 23 seafarers on board the vessel “Jag Anand” are “in need of urgent relief and are mentally and physically exhausted due to unprecedented prolonged stay on board”. Some of the crew members have completed nearly 20 months of continuous service on board.

Birmingham said the government had made diplomatic representations to Chinese officials about this ship.

“It’s deeply troubling, particularly because it goes beyond the mere question of trade, and involves the question, of course, of individuals who have found themselves at sea for a prolonged period of time,” he told the ABC on Thursday.

“We would urge Chinese authorities together with the shipping company and the company whose product is onboard to work together to find a resolution to this issue.”

Birmingham did not speculate about the reasons for the delays, but said the coal trade into China “goes through great peaks and troughs, and there’s been a significant trough in the last month or so”.

“So, it’s not an unusual thing to see that downturn. But this ship has been there for a considerable period of time, and those onboard it deserve to have this issue resolved between those parties.”

The ship is carrying about 160,000 tonnes of coking coal from Anglo-American’s Queensland mines, the Australian newspaper has reported. Guardian Australia sought a response from the company but a spokesperson declined to comment.

Wang Wenbin, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said the Chinese side had been “providing convenience for the sailors involved”.

He did not explain the delay beyond saying: “China has clear provisions regarding epidemic prevention and control at ports and quarantine requirements for sailors.”

The incident comes amid ongoing tensions in the relationship between China and Australia, which has resulted in a series of trade actions.

Asked about a ban on timber supplied from Victoria, Birmingham said the Chinese government had provided technical reasons for the move.

He said Australia understood the need for checks to ensure the safety and integrity of product going into a market.

“However, I note that there has been a consistent theme of these sorts of technical issues in relation to what we would usually consider to be safe and reliable Australian product,” he said.

“And that is a very concerning, troubling aspect in relation to what seems to be a recurring targeting of some Australian industries.

“We urge China to give clarity around the type of practices that are being applied here, because this type of disruption and uncertainty is hurting not only Australian businesses, but those Chinese businesses who rely upon Australian product.”

Meanwhile the Chinese embassy has told the Morrison government to “stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs”, arguing the qualification of members of the region’s parliament is “purely an internal affair of China”.

The comments come after the foreign minister, Marise Payne, raised alarm that Beijing’s “disqualification of duly elected legislative council lawmakers seriously undermines Hong Kong’s democratic processes and institutions”.

Four lawmakers were disqualified yesterday straight after the new measure came into effect, prompting the entire pro-democracy caucus to announce their resignation.