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Researcher: Damage to underwater infrastructure often remains unresolved

Tanker and ships at sea off the coast of Tallinn.
Tanker and ships at sea off the coast of Tallinn. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs published its position on Wednesday on the investigation into the circumstances surrounding the damage to the Balticconnector gas pipeline between Estonia and Finland. However, Alexander Lott, a specialist in the international law of the sea, said that such cases often remain unresolved.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning touched on the issue during a regular press conference.

"Regarding the incident you mentioned, China has smooth communication with Finland and other parties, and the investigation into the incident is ongoing. We hope that the parties involved will clarify the truth as soon as possible, based on the principles of objectivity, impartiality, and professionalism. China is also willing to provide the necessary assistance in accordance with international law," Mao Ning said.

On Tuesday, Finland's National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) reported that an anchor was lifted from the seabed that morning, most likely damaging a gas pipeline linking Finland and Estonia. According to the NBI, the investigation has led to the Hong Kong-flagged container ship Newnew Polar Bear.

The Estonian prosecutor's office is investigating whether the ship's anchor may also have caused damage to the communication cable between Estonia and Finland.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said that there are reasons to believe that the damage to both the gas pipeline and the communication cable is linked. She said on Tuesday that both Estonia and Finland had approached China seeking cooperation but had not been able to get in contact to clarify the matter.

"In any case, this cooperation could be better and stronger in order to be able to identify what happened and, as ships are sailing in waters where our investigative bodies cannot go, to cooperate with other countries that are also parties to the conventions on the law of the sea," Kallas said.

Alexander Lott, research fellow at the Norwegian Center for the Law of the Sea and lecturer at the faculty of law of the University of Tartu, said that, as a general rule, the flag state of a ship will open an investigation into an incident outside the territorial sea that has caused substantial damage to another state's ships or equipment.

The flag state must, however, cooperate in the investigation if a coastal state initiates it.

Injuries to submarine cables have occurred in recent years in both Europe and Asia. In the Taiwan Strait alone, there have been 27 in the last five years, and, as a rule, such investigations have been complicated.

One of the main reasons why investigations remain unresolved is that damage to cables and pipelines takes place in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or on the high seas altogether, and so a coastal state cannot rely on enforcing its jurisdiction, Lott said.

"This means that procedures in cable or pipeline damage cases cannot, as a rule, support the right of the owner state to board the suspect ship. There are, however, certain possibilities offered by the international law of the sea, i.e., it is possible for officials of the coastal state or naval personnel to board a ship while it is in the high seas or the exclusive economic zone if the captain of the ship or the flag state of the ship gives its express consent. So if there is such good cooperation between the state conducting the proceedings and the other state, for example, the flag state of the ship, inter alia in judicial matters, it can be assumed that the officials conducting the proceedings will obtain such consent from the flag state of the ship or the owner of that ship," Lott said.

"In the case of damage to the cable between Estonia and Finland, this is highly questionable. As the prime minister's statements yesterday made clear," Lott said.

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Editor: Barbara Oja, Kristina Kersa

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