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16th Apr 2024

Estonia and Finland focus on Chinese ship in pipeline mystery

  • Finnish mine-hunting vessel MHC Vahterpää in the Gulf of Finland (Baltic Sea) earlier this year (Photo: nato.int)
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Estonia is pursuing the same Chinese ship as Finland in its enquiries into the latest mystery to strike Nato's underwater pipes and cables.

"Further investigation will focus more on the [Chinese] vessel and its activity," Estonian state prosecutor Triinu Olev told EUobserver on Wednesday (25 October).

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  • Estonian foreign minister Margus Tsahkna (r) with EU foreign-relations chief Josep Borrell (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

"We are working with our [Nato and EU] partners to check all other sites of underwater infrastructure," Estonia's foreign minister Margus Tsahkna also said, in a sign of how badly the incident jangled nerves.

The alarm comes after something ripped apart the Balticconnector gas pipeline from Estonia to Finland on 8 October, which stretches for 77km at depths of down to 100 metres.

Something also damaged nearby telecommunications cables from Estonia to Finland and Estonia to Sweden.

The Estonian prosecutor general's office and the Finnish National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) have formed a joint investigation team.

Estonian and Finnish security services and navies also visited the maritime scene last week, despite stormy conditions.

For his part, the NBI's chief investigator, Risto Lohi, told press on Tuesday that a Chinese-owned container ship, the NewNew Polar Bear, most likely tore the gas pipeline with an anchor, which was found.

And Estonia's Olev shed more light on the joint probe.

"The damaged telecommunications cables are located somewhat further from the pipeline, so we still need to investigate this more thoroughly, but one investigative version amongst others is that NewNew Polar Bear is [also] involved in the incident," Olev said.

"The aim of the investigation is to determine whether the vessel is responsible for damaging the telecommunications cables or not and whether the damage was caused intentionally or by accident," he said.

"When necessary we will ask for support from other nations, including Chinese authorities," he added.

"There is reason to believe the [gas pipe and communication cable] cases are connected," Estonia's Tsahkna also said.

Nato has boosted surveillance in response.

"Increased measures include additional surveillance and reconnaissance flights, including with maritime patrol aircraft, Nato Awacs planes, and drones. A fleet of four Nato mine-hunters is also being dispatched to the area," Tsahkna said.

"Incidents in the Baltic Sea show the vulnerability of our underwater infrastructure," he said.

And EU leaders will find ink for the Baltic episode in their summit communiqué in Brussels on Thursday, despite focusing on more dramatic events in the Middle East.

"In view of the damage to critical infrastructure in the Baltic Sea caused by external activity, the European Council stresses the need for effective measures to strengthen the resilience and ensure the security of critical infrastructure," EU leaders aimed to say.

The Balticconnector and cable incident comes after an explosion destroyed the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany in September 2022.

It also comes after suspected Russian fishing boats cut cables from Norway to its Svalbard archipelago in 2021, as well as from the UK to the Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands, and (Danish) Faroe Islands.

Speaking of the recent Baltic episode, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said on 11 October: "If it is proven to be an attack on Nato critical infrastructure ... it will be met by a united and determined response".

Estonia's Olev told EUobserver: "Getting to the truth is important for both Estonia and Finland".

But it remains to be seen if China cooperates with the EU states on the NewNew Polar Bear, which Finnish authorities contacted "several times", the NBI's Lohi said, but which silently sailed out of Finnish waters, preventing any "coercive measures" to stop her.

And in the absence of hard evidence of Chinese state sabotage, it would be tough for Nato to activate either its Article V mutual defence clause or even its Article IV security-crisis consultations.

Blocking Russia and China from Baltic Sea?

"I cannot see Nato reacting against China except to issue a statement if the evidence [that the NewNew Polar Bear did it] is solid," said Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official who teaches war studies at Exeter University in the UK.

"It will be up to Finland, Estonia, and Sweden to decide if they want to publish and publicise the evidence when they have it to generate pressure on China [for financial compensation]," Shea said.

Meanwhile, the Nord Stream investigations, being carried out by Denmark, Germany, and Sweden, are still ongoing more than a year later.

The Svalbard and Faroe probes didn't indict anybody on sabotage.

And all that left Chinese and Russian vessels free to criss-cross "critical" Western arteries in the High North and Baltic Sea, despite heightened geopolitical tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year.

Finland joined Nato in April in reaction to Russia's aggression. Sweden is finalising membership, also ending decades of neutrality.

"[Nato] navies can monitor shipping and deter potential hostile vessels from loitering too close to critical undersea infrastructure, but it will be demanding to keep up 24/7 patrols," Shea said.

"Some Baltic politicians have suggested shutting Russia and maybe China out of the Baltic Sea altogether, but I doubt this will happen short of wartime," he added.

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