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Efforts Underway to Curtail Chinese Logistics Tracking of U.S.-Flag Ships and Cargo, and Control of Domestic Port Operations.

Aerial shot of the Port of Baltimore at sunset, looking across and intermodal container yard towards a ship being loaded by cranes. In the distance, the Key Bridge stretches across the river.

Imagine the following scenario: American military forces are placed on alert for possible immediate action in a destination without a nearby military base. The equipment they will need to sustain their involvement is scheduled to be delivered aboard U.S.-flag merchant ships being loaded at various ports in the United States.

Massive Chinese-built cranes with electronic devices used for cargo tracking load the containers while electronic monitoring devices and software systems record which boxes stacked on which vessels carry the materiel and note the final destinations.

En route, the civilian-crewed ships receive orders to alter their plans as the original locations for disembarking have been disabled. American military forces, meanwhile, are left without their valuable and much-needed gear.

Think this is a movie plot awaiting an ending because of the writers’ strike? Think again. This is one of numerous situations involving international logistics under consideration by elected officials, government agencies and port operators.

There are two linked threats. The first is a Chinese data management system increasingly being used around the world called LOGINK, “a logistics management platform that aggregates logistics data from various sources, including domestic and foreign overseas ports, foreign logistics networks, hundreds of thousands of users in the People’s Republic of China and other databases,” according to the Baker Institute of Rice University. (The Baker Institute is a 30-year-old nonpartisan think tank named for former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III.)

The Baker Institute report adds, “LOGINK offers Beijing [China’s capital] a means to monitor and shape the international logistics market, increase foreign strategic dependency on China, and exploit the vulnerabilities of LOGINK users for economic and geostrategic purposes.”

LOGINK (which stands for China’s state-supported National Public Platform for Transportation and Logistics) started late in this century’s first decade as a provincial truck and logistics tracking system. By 2010, it was used for tracking data in northeast Asia including ports in China, Japan and South Korea.

According to the Baker Institute, LOGINK today has the ability to collect and funnel transportation and logistics information around the world. Using statistics from a Naval War College Review and included by the Baker Institute, China has a “presence in at least 95 overseas ports.”

The second risk is due to China’s dominance in building and supplying cranes used to load and offload cargo. These cranes are in use at ports in the United States and around the world. The software used to run these cranes can be remotely accessed and, as Chinese companies must follow the orders of the Chinese Communist Party, could be used to disable these cranes, thus stopping any loading or offloading. That is not some hypothetical threat: hacking has occurred with remote control of the cranes as reported by Forbes in 2019 (several foreign ports) and by CNN in 2021 (Houston).

In a report delivered to the AFL-CIO International Affairs Committee earlier this month, Commissioner Michael Wessel of the U.S.-China Economic & Security Review Commission stated China wants to be a “transportation superpower by 2049.”

Wessel noted that the Chinese offer LOGINK “to be a one-stop-shop replacing many of the functions of third-party logistics providers,” but the companies/facilities “have to adopt Chinese standards.” Additionally, the Baker Institute pointed out that China “stated as early as 2017 that LOGINK offers opportunities for the government to shape markets in the internet era.”

The Chinese Communist Party directed that LOGINK be offered free of charge to ports globally and that strategy is working. Besides the Asian theater, Wessel stated LOGINK is being used in the ports of Rotterdam, Antwerp and Hamburg.

So, what does all this mean to the U.S. merchant marine?

Currently, ports that utilize Chinese-built cranes operate in the U.S. ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Charleston, Baltimore, Boston and Norfolk.

Quoting other sources, Wessel told the AFL-CIO committee that “some national-security and Pentagon officials have compared ship-to-shore cranes made by the China-based manufacturer to a Trojan horse. While comparably well-made and inexpensive, they contain sophisticated sensors that can register and track the provenance and destination of containers, prompting concerns that China could capture information about materiel being shipped out of the country to support U.S. military operations around the world.”

In fact, The Wall Street Journal published a story on March 5 entitled “Pentagon Sees Giant Cargo Cranes as Possible Chinese Spying Tools.”

Recently, the chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, Army veteran Rep. Mark Green (R-TN), stated, “On behalf of the American people, this committee is demanding answers on the risks these cranes pose to U.S. cybersecurity and the resilience of our critical infrastructure, which is a core aspect of the homeland security mission.”

In addition, U.S. Rep Dusty Johnson (R-SD) has included an amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act making its way through Congress that would prohibit U.S. ports from utilizing LOGINK. “If LOGINK gained access to U.S. carriers and ports, the [Chinese government] would be at an extreme competitive advantage, allowing them to underbid foreign competitors and further increase dependency on Chinese markets,” Johnson said, according to The Journal of Commerce.

“For U.S. mariners being tracked by a foreign country brings visions of the First and Second World Wars when German U-Boats indiscriminately sunk our vessels,” MTD (and Seafarers Union) President David Heindel recalled. “These logistics systems could allow for precise targets. Congress must act appropriately and swiftly to address this potential threat,” added Heindel.

“These threats aren’t part of some science fiction plot. They are real,” Wessel declared. “America must respond.”

 

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