A cargo of Australian coal bound for China before relations turned sour. Photo: AFP

Indian crews on ships carrying Australian coal to China are stranded at sea in the midst of a geopolitical slugfest.

With no solution in sight for the 39 personnel held up for months outside northern Chinese ports, reports say India has told airlines to avoid flying Chinese passengers into the country. The border standoff between China and India is not helping either.

Chinese nationals typically fly into India for business through a third country with which India has an air bubble arrangement. There are no direct flights between the countries because of the pandemic.

India’s Civil Aviation Ministry didn’t immediately respond to an Asia Times query seeking a response and reasons for keeping the Chinese passengers out.

Still, the issue of the crew members has been on the boil between the countries for several months. The ships are bulk cargo vessel MV Jag Anand carrying 23 crew outside the port of Caofeidian in Heibei since June 13, and MV Anastasia with 16 crew outside Jingtang port in the Bohai Sea in northern China since August.

While the ban by China on imported of coal from Australia is the genesis of the trouble for the Indian crews, the worsened relations between the Asian giants may have contributed to the imbroglio.

India’s Foreign Ministry spokesman earlier said its embassy in China requested that the ships be allowed to dock and the crew be allowed to leave for home in exchange for a new crew.

“The Chinese authorities have conveyed that on account of various Covid-19 related restrictions imposed by the local authorities, crew change is not being permitted from these ports,’’ according to India’s external affairs spokesman.

Yet the Chinese authorities have been permitting disembarkation of crews of ships from other countries and even permitting crews to fly out in exchange for new sets.

“We also understand however that some other ships, which arrived after the Indian ships had arrived, have managed to discharge cargo and leave,’’ said the External Affairs Ministry. “The reasons for this are not clear.’’

The ships are not being permitted to leave Chinese seas, with the coal importers citing rules that prohibit ships from leaving without fulfilling their contractual obligations. Ships can be detained if they try to leave the port without unloading their cargo once they have registered their arrival. So the ships and crews remain stuck in open waters outside the ports.

Maritime rules too are contributing towards making life tougher also for shipping companies. According to industry estimates, about 75 ships carrying 8 million tons of Australian coal worth several hundred million dollars could be facing uncertain times.

The International Maritime Organization is using its offices to help end the stalemate that seems to be blowing up into a larger geopolitical feud.

Industry sources say as many as 1,500 shipping crew members from India may have been stuck on high seas because of the Covid-19 restrictions placed by various nations. In September, the International Maritime Organization estimated 400,000 seafarers were stranded on ships. Since then, with easing restrictions and a pickup in global trade, the number is likely to have declined.

India’s Forward Seamen’s Union of India and National Union of Seafarers of India too have been pushing for an early resolution.

“We are working in request with Indian ministry to intervene for repatriation of our seafarer brothers safely as they are not part of any political international cross border issues,’’ Manoj Yadav, general secretary of FSUI said.