White House Asks COSCO Dalian to Keep AIS Turned On

The COSCO Dalian tanker Cosflying Lake (file image)

Published Oct 16, 2019 8:11 PM by The Maritime Executive

The White House has asked the sanctioned shipping company COSCO Shipping Tanker (Dalian) not to turn off its tankers' AIS transponders, a measure often used to circumvent sanctions.  

AIS is a collision-avoidance aid, and by design, the broadcast signal from each ship's transponder contains the vessel's position, speed and heading. It is a strong enough signal that it can be detected from space, making it possible to monitor most broadcasting ships, in most locations, most of the time - unless they turn off their transponders. 

As of October 7, signals had not been recently received from about one third of COSCO Dalian's tankers, prompting concerns that they had gone "dark." The company denied that its vessels ceased transmission, and it maintains that it always operates in accordance with international standards. Samir Madani, the cofounder of TankerTrackers, noted that poor satellite AIS detection coverage in the South China Sea could easily make it hard to "see" a large number of Chinese tankers at any given time. All but a few of the affected vessels are now "visible" to commercial AIS tracking services again, according to Reuters. 

Two White House officials told Reuters that the administration was worried that COSCO Shipping Tanker (Dalian)'s vessels could pose a danger to navigation if they operate without AIS, describing it as "incredibly dangerous and irresponsible behavior." The White House has expressed no comparable safety concerns about Iran's tankers, which regularly disable AIS as a matter of practice in order to evade sanctions. 

COSCO Dalian faces U.S. sanctions due to its alleged willingness to violate American sanctions on Iranian petroleum. China is one of a handful of countries that have continued to purchase Iran's oil since the Trump administration imposed stiff sanctions on Tehran last year, and the U.S. Treasury contends that state-owned COSCO Dalian has played a role in transporting it. The sanctions on COSCO Dalian have effectively sidelined its fleet in many major trade lanes, driving day rates for dirty tankers to record highs. 

The American sanctions regime is designed to drive the Iranian government to negotiate a halt to its ballistic missile program and its financing for insurgent groups in the Middle East. In response, Iran is gradually ramping its nuclear program back up, and it has allegedly sponsored attacks on foreign shipping and on the Saudi oil processing mega-complex at Abqaiq.