The Battle Over Chinese Shipping Cranes

Chinese shipping cranes are fast becoming the latest item to get caught up in the contentious relationship between Washington and Beijing. U.S. officials have been raising concerns about the security threat posed by Chinese-made cranes at U.S. ports for months, sparking a debate over the potential risks associated with these essential pieces of equipment.

At the center of the controversy is China’s Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries, commonly known as ZPMC, which accounts for over 70% of the global market in shipping cranes. With over 200 Chinese-made cranes currently operating at U.S. ports, the issue of cybersecurity has taken on new urgency as officials worry about potential vulnerabilities that could be exploited by hackers.

These cranes play a crucial role in moving goods through maritime ports, and their remote control capabilities have raised red flags among security experts. A recent congressional probe uncovered a dozen cellular modems on Chinese cranes that could be remotely accessed, leading to concerns about the potential for economic disruption.

In response to these concerns, ZPMC has vehemently denied posing a cybersecurity risk, stating that they strictly adhere to the laws and regulations of relevant countries and regions. The company’s statement, released on Sunday, aimed to reassure the public that their cranes are not a threat to national security.

Despite ZPMC’s assurances, the Biden administration has taken decisive action to address the issue. In late February, an executive order was enacted to give officials more authority to enhance cybersecurity at U.S. ports. Additionally, $20 billion in funding has been allocated to improve port infrastructure, with a focus on encouraging domestic production of cranes from the U.S. subsidiary of Japanese firm Mitsui.

However, not everyone is convinced of the security risks posed by Chinese-made cranes. The American Association of Port Authorities recently announced that they have found no known security breaches from these cranes at U.S. ports, despite what they described as “alarmist media reports.” The association emphasized that cranes do not have the ability to track the origin, destination, or nature of cargo shipped through U.S. ports.

Cary Davis, the AAPA’s general counsel, emphasized the need for concrete evidence to support claims of security risks, stating, “I like a good spy movie, but you need a smoking gun to make it a blockbuster, and there’s no smoke in this story.” While acknowledging the competitive advantage enjoyed by Chinese subsidies, which make Chinese-made cranes 50% cheaper than their counterparts, the association called on the U.S. to support local manufacturing to level the playing field.

As the debate over the security implications of Chinese shipping cranes continues to unfold, it remains to be seen how the Biden administration will navigate this complex issue. With the global market for shipping cranes dominated by Chinese manufacturers, finding a balance between economic interests and national security concerns presents a significant challenge for policymakers.

Overall, the controversy surrounding Chinese shipping cranes underscores the delicate balance between international trade and national security, highlighting the need for a nuanced approach to addressing cybersecurity threats in an increasingly interconnected world.

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