Navios Amaryllis: Reflection of China’s approach to diplomacy

By N. C. Bipindra

An old adage goes, “it’s hard to see things when you are too close – take a step back and look – you may discover a larger plot”. The adage has been proven true, yet again. More than a year after the ill-fated grounding of Navios Amaryllis off Maldives, investigators have discovered a plausible cause. They believe that a cyber-attack on the ship’s systems, originating from China-based hackers, is the likely cause that led to the grounding in the environmentally fragile nation.

What is known is that on Aug. 19, 2021, Panama-flagged Bulk Carrier Navios Amaryllis ran aground on K. Rasfari reef of Kaafu Atoll in Maldives, and the island nation received the largest compensation ever ($10 million) for environmental damages under its Environmental Protection and Preservation Act.

But the narrative put up in the media had numerous gaps. The investigation of the incident was completed in less than a week and it was declared that the ship ran aground because of negligence on part of the ship’s captain.

File Photo: Navios Amaryllis.

Grounding of a vessel fitted with latest navigational equipment, sailing of the ship close to Kaafu Atoll when transiting in ballast condition from Tuticorin to South Africa, no actions by the captain or crew before grounding and no official statement by the shipping company, are some issues that raise questions.

Further, the way the whole incident and its aftermath were handled indicate likely pressure to supress objective investigations. Thus, an independent investigation was undertaken and as expected some shocking truths emerged. To understand the case, let’s take a step back: to Sep 2018.

Ouster of pro-Chinese Yameen government by Maldivians in 2018 and election of Ibrahim Mohd Solih of MDP was a setback for Beijing. Maldives was on the verge of becoming yet another Chinese colony under Yameen, and his removal was an unexpected development. President Solih was seen clearly distancing himself from China and his ‘India First’ foreign policy was an eyesore for CCP.

New Delhi’s support to Male during COVID-19 and signing of HICDP (High Impact Community Development Project) and GMCP (Greater Male Connectivity Project) reiterated the importance accorded by both countries to their relations.

Thus started the infamous ‘India Out’ campaign – guided from Beijing and steered by Yameen. But, in early 2021, the campaign started losing steam. In Feb. 2021, when India signed the UTF (Uthuru Thila Falhu) Harbour Project for building a new harbour for Maldivian Coast Guard, it was literally a ‘Get Out Call’ for China. Immediately after signing of UTF Project, the Chinese Communist Party’s Mandarins swung into action – anti-UTF protests were funded on one hand, and aggressive communication with Solih government started on the other.

Slowly the incentives became exhortations and later indirect threats. When Beijing failed to shake Male’s determination and could not gather its lost ground in Maldives, it decided to chasten Male, in a manner that hurts them the most. And what could be a better way to shake up an environmentally fragile nation than to give them a taste of an environmental catastrophe.

This was done effectively through Navios Amaryllis, by hacking its internal systems through a maritime cyber-attack, resulting in loss of navigation controls and grounding of the vessel.

The whole incident was meant to show Male their vulnerability, China’s strength and power of the ‘Dark Army’. Since the aim was only to intimidate, a ballast vessel was used to limit the environmental damage. Crafted carefully, the incident was an unethical Chinese punishment to Maldives.

Investigators have found proofs of cyber-attack on systems of Navios Amaryllis and traced the origin of Virus to China. Suspicion is corroborated by the fact that the ship was built by Tsuneishi Group (Zhoushan) Shipbuilders of Zhejiang Province (China) and with the blue prints of the ship already available with Chinese state agencies, cyber-attack would have been a cake walk.

Maritime Cyber Attacks are not new, but mostly limited to infrastructure ashore. There have been unconfirmed reports of attacks on sea-going vessels with them supposedly being limited to minor incidents like GPS hacking.

However, the vessels were not fully incapacitated. If experts are to be believed, China has opened the ‘Pandora’s Box’ by using maritime cyber-attack as a means of intimidation. This is the first time when the navigational safety of a vessel and environmental fragility of an island nation has been compromised, and this would not be the last one.

‘Weaponizing a Vessel’ was always an available option, however, it was never utilised by responsible powers because of its unethicality. Use of this most disgraceful means of reprisal by the ‘Largest Country of Asia’ against the ‘Smallest Country of Asia’ has once again proved that China does not deserve the respect of a ‘Mature Nation’.   

The investigators are sure that Navios Amaryllis incident occurred because of Maritime Cyber Attack and the attack was initiated by China backed hackers, but they do not have proof because of opacity of the crime. Ethics are alien to a ‘Dragon’ – he is your friend only till you are subservient to him – the day you decide to stand up for yourself, he would not hesitate in punishing you by the most unethical means. Countries should engage with China at their own peril.

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