Florida’s Chinese Ship-to-Shore Cranes

12404230869?profile=RESIZE_400xLeaders of South Florida’s Port Everglades and Port Miami have met with US Coast Guard officials to review cybersecurity programs aimed at reducing the possibility that giant Chinese-made cranes operating at the region’s ports and others in the US pose a national security threat. 

In late February, the Biden administration announced it planned to invest billions in the US manufacture of ship-to-shore cranes that transfer millions of tons of cargo annually at major American seaports.  The action was accompanied by other moves that include the establishment of fundamental cybersecurity standards at seaports, as well as enhanced digital security measures for foreign-built cranes to be enforced by the US Coast Guard.[1]  For years, lawmakers, foreign policy analysts and critics of growing Chinese influence over international trade and infrastructure projects worldwide have argued that equipment manufactured in the People’s Republic of China looms as a potential “Trojan Horse” for an adversary determined to gather sensitive US commercial and military information for use to its own strategic advantage.

In response to growing national media reports about its alleged intent to use the cranes for spying, the Chinese government has denied the assertions, saying they are based on “paranoia.”

Shortly after the US President signed his order, officials of Port Everglades and PortMiami met with local US Coast Guard officials to discuss updated security measures for gantry cranes the ports acquired in recent years from the Chinese manufacturer, ZPMC (Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co., Ltd.).

Broward County FL’s Port Everglades has six Chinese-made cranes in operation, with three only recently entered into service.  The port entered into an agreement with ZPMC in 2018 to buy the cranes, which at the time were priced at $13.8 million each.  “The port already has a Facility Security Plan that it maintains and reviews annually,” said Glenn Wiltshire, acting director of Port Everglades. “Our Facility Security Plan may be amended based on findings and recommendations from assessments. A separate comprehensive security assessment that includes cybersecurity is underway. It should be completed before year’s end.  We have in place the safeguards we believe are necessary to address the concerns that have been raised,” Wiltshire told local media.  “However, when someone raises one of these things, we are taking a look at it.”

One key security element is that access to the cranes is limited.  “Our cranes are not connected to the Internet,” Wiltshire said. “The ability of someone to access them from the outside isn’t there.  Maintenance is done through a controlled set of circumstances.”  In addition, the operating systems are not Chinese, but were made by Toshiba Mitsubishi Electric Industrial Systems Corp. of Japan.  Port Everglades also operates cranes made by Samsung, a South Korean manufacturer.  Those cranes use an operating system by General Electric.

A Biden Administration directive to replace Chinese cranes operating at US ports including those in South Florida could pose significant disruptions at Port Everglades and Port Miami.  The fear is that some sort of spying tools are embedded in cranes and pose a national security risk.  Some of the newer Chinese-made cranes at Port Everglades are shown at Port Everglades.  Ports operating Chinese cranes nationwide are now reviewing their security plans with the US Coast Guard after a Biden administration order directed operators to review their cybersecurity plans involving cranes manufactured by the Chinese-based firm ZPMC.  “Port Miami has been working with its federal regulator, the US Coast Guard, on this matter,” she said in an emailed statement.  She said the Coast Guard captain of the port, through the Maritime Security Operations Mission Program, met with port leadership “to review and discuss the US Department of Homeland Security’s authority to address maritime cyber threats to ensure Port Miami’s networks and systems are secure.”  Without being specific, she said the port “must have specific requirements and procedures that owners of the People’s Republic of China-manufactured ship-to-shore cranes must follow.”  She said the port is in compliance with those procedures.  At this point, there is no verifiable public evidence that any malignant equipment or software has appeared on Chinese manufactured cranes now operating in South Florida.

Earlier this month, House Homeland Security Chairman Mark E. Green, R-Tenn., Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security Chairman Carlos Gimenez, R-Fla., and House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., wrote to ZPMC  “demanding answers following numerous findings by the Committees’ ongoing joint investigation into critical infrastructure security vulnerabilities at US ports,” according to a Homeland Security Committee statement.  “The letter details concerns related to cellular modems discovered on ZPMC ship-to-shore crane components at a U.S. seaport and a cellular modem discovered in another US seaport’s server room that houses STS (ship-to-shore) cranes’ firewall and networking equipment,” the statement said.  “These communication devices were not part of the equipment contracts, nor could port officials determine why the components had been installed.”  Neither of those seaports with the modems were in Florida.  The letter also requested information regarding “ZPMC’s engagement” with the Chinese Communist Party “and any requests from the CCP to ZPMC.”

ZPMC, whose US headquarters is in New Jersey and which maintains Florida offices in Hialeah and the Port of Fernandina, did not immediately respond to a request for comment left on its website last week.  The congressional committees are also investigating the Swiss company ABB, “as many of the operational components” it  manufactures are shipped to China “where they are stored for several months and later installed.”

A mix of cranes statewide - There are Chinese-made cranes operating elsewhere in the state, and Mike Rubin, president and CEO of the Florida Ports Council, said port operators will comply with whatever new rules the Coast Guard requires.  “The Coast Guard requires ports to submit a cybersecurity plan,” Rubin said. “It’s been a priority for a bit. I think they found something on a crane which raised the issues. We’re going to make sure we comply with anything in federal law.”  Chinese gantry cranes are not the only cranes operating around the state, the council noted.

JAXPORT in Jacksonville has cranes originally made in China; “but the operating components of those cranes have been refurbished with European components,” according to a council spokeswoman.

“Stick” cranes — those that can move different items with a single boom — are made in Europe and can be found at the Port of Fernandina, Port of Palm Beach, Port Panama City and SeaPort Manatee in Tampa Bay.

Dominating the market - In an interview last week, US Rep. Gimenez repeated his long-standing concern that 80% of ship-to-shore cranes operating at US ports are manufactured in China.  Elected to Congress in 2020, the congressman said the crane issue came to his attention while he was mayor of Miami-Dade County after PortMiami acquired its first Chinese-made cranes.  “They were installed before these concerns started cropping up,” Gimenez said. He added that after he traveled to China in 2017,  “I relayed to my folks that I really didn’t want to do business there.  Part of the problem in China is if you are a Chinese company, you must share all of your data with the government,” he said. “It’s not a thing where you have the right to or not.”  Moreover, he noted the PRC has been “building port infrastructure around the world.”  “Four out of five cranes you see in ports are probably made by China,” Gimenez said. “What they did was they (started) a very aggressive campaign to undercut other crane manufacturers around the world and forced them out of business.”  He added that ZMPC “gets subsidized by the government” enabling the company to “reduce the price.”

Another key concern: The potential of a US-China confrontation - “If in fact we end up in a really adversarial posture with the PRC, and they embargo their spare  parts for cranes, how long will it be before they hamper maritime operations in the US because of our dependence on these Chinese cranes?” Gimenez said.  He said the Biden directives “mirrored very much” a bill he introduced in Congress. “What we need to do is see what happens with these steps.”  As for the possibility of ultimately replacing the Chinese cranes, which would be an expensive proposition, Gimenez said other steps should take place first, such as replacing software, a measure that some operators have undertaken already.  “We need to start producing some of the spare parts in the United States” as cranes start to wear out, he added.  “We need to start buying from a different source and not from the PRC.”

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[1] https://www.sun-sentinel.com/2024/03/25/port-everglades-portmiami-reviewing-cybersecurity-for-their-chinese-made-gantry-cranes/

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