China-Owned Oil Tanker Changes Name in Apparent Effort to Evade US Sanctions

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SINGAPORE/KUALA LUMPUR—While in the Indian Ocean heading toward the Strait of Malacca, the very large crude carrier (VLCC) Pacific Bravo went dark on June 5, shutting off the transponder that signals its position and direction to other ships, ship-tracking data showed.

A U.S. government official had warned ports in Asia not to allow the ship to dock, saying it was carrying Iranian crude in violation of U.S. economic sanctions. A VLCC typically transports about 2 million barrels of oil, worth about $120 million at current prices.

On July 18, the transponder of the VLCC Latin Venture was activated offshore Port Dickson, Malaysia, in the Strait of Malacca, about 940 miles (1,500 km) from where the Pacific Bravo had last been signaling its position.

But both the Latin Venture and the Pacific Bravo transmitted the same unique identification number, IMO9206035, issued by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), according to data from information provider Refinitiv and VesselsValue, a company that tracks ships and vessel transactions. Thomson Reuters has a minority stake in Refinitiv.

Since IMO numbers remain with a ship for life, this indicated the Latin Venture and the Pacific Bravo were the same vessel and suggested the owner was trying to evade Iranian oil sanctions.

“Without speculating on any particular shipowners’ actions, generally speaking for a ship to change its name abruptly after receiving accusations from the U.S., it can only be that the owner is hopeful that the market will be deceived by something as rudimentary as a name change,” said Matt Stanley, an oil broker at StarFuels in Dubai.

The vessel is owned by Kunlun Holdings, which, according to data from Equasis.org, a shipping transparency website set up by the European Commission and the French Maritime Administration, is based in Shanghai. The company also has an office in Singapore.

Calls to the company’s offices were unanswered.

While operating as the Pacific Bravo, the ship’s transmission data showed that its cargo tanks were full before it turned off the transponder. When it reappeared…

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