March 30, 2021

Suez Canal

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“Salvage teams on Monday finally freed the colossal container ship stuck for nearly a week in the Suez Canal, ending a crisis that had clogged one of the world’s most vital waterways and halted billions of dollars a day in maritime commerce. A flotilla of tugboats, helped by the tides, wrenched the bulbous bow of the skyscraper-sized Ever Given from the canal’s sandy bank, where it had been firmly lodged since March 23.” AP News

Many on both sides worry about the risks from trade chokepoints and ever larger ships:

“The flow of goods by sea accounts for 70% of total international trade, and the chokepoints in that network have inspired both international conflict and commerce for millennia… For China, this is a unique vulnerability. Unlike the U.S., which is a net exporter of crude these days, China imports nearly three-quarters of the oil it consumes, as well as about four-fifths of the iron ore it uses to fuel its frantic pace of infrastructure buildout — not to mention most of the goods exports it uses to obtain hard currency to pay for these commodities…

“Much of China’s foreign policy over the past decade makes more sense as a way of overcoming those vulnerabilities. Chinese companies hold stakes of close to 65% in the world’s busiest ports, according to Gavekal Dragonomics. An infrastructure corridor through Pakistan, petroleum pipelines through Myanmar, and intermodal rail route across the Malay peninsula — all key elements of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative — serve to reduce China’s dependence on the straits of Malacca and Singapore. Asserting claims in the South China Sea, similarly, makes it harder for Southeast Asian neighbors and the U.S. to threaten trade.”
David Fickling and Anjani Trivedi, Bloomberg

“In addition to the Suez Canal, there are three international straits and one other canal that represent the major maritime choke points. These are the Strait of Malacca that separates the Pacific and Indian Oceans; the Bosporus Strait that separates the Aegean and Black Sea; the Strait of Bab-El-Mandeb at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula; and the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf. The other canal, of course, is the Panama Canal…

“In all of these locations we should put significant focus on creating international authorities who manage them with an appreciation for their international character (the Suez and Panama canals both have well run authorities); conduct frequent drills and exercises to practice for disasters like the one that has just occurred in the Suez canal; have internationally funded resources to make sure they can remain open in crisis (as was done on an ad hoc basis in Suez); and have an international regime with regulatory powers inspect all of them frequently.”
James Stavridis, Time

“The Ever Given debacle also highlights the risks of extreme cost-cutting in the name of efficiency – code for maximizing profits and shareholder returns. Container ships have exploded in size in recent decades, while their crew numbers have gone in the opposite direction… The Ever Given’s size is hard to fathom. It is as long as the Empire State Building is tall and has a deadweight tonnage of almost 200,000 tonnes, a reference to how much weight it can carry. It is more than 60 metres longer than the new generation of Ford-class, nuclear-powered U.S. aircraft carriers…

“At the same time, the efficiency and automation drive saw crew numbers shrink. The biggest container ships have crews of 20 to 25, a half to a quarter the size of those of much smaller, older cargo ships. The pay is low and the hours are long, and sailors often complain of stress and fatigue… We don’t know why the Ever Given swerved… An investigation is under way. But cost-cutting does appear to have played a role in the incident. The obsession with size for the sake of efficiency handed the Suez Canal a beached whale of a ship that could not be refloated easily.”
Eric Reguly, Globe and Mail

Other opinions below.

See past issues

From the Left

“According to the insurer Allianz, 41 large ships were lost in 2019, and 46 in 2018… When I asked Captain John Konrad, a merchant mariner who runs the maritime-news site gCaptain, how many major ship incidents were a result of bad bridge resource management, he answered, ‘Every one. They are all BRM problems.’…

“The success of the aviation industry in improving standards and reducing accidents suggests it would be straightforward (if not easy) and valuable to do the same in shipping. ‘We know how to do this,’ Konrad said. But without improved bridge resource management, the maritime industry will remain just as stuck as the Ever Given—and probably for much longer.”
David A. Graham, The Atlantic

“The Ever Given is operated by Taiwan-based shipping company Evergreen Maritime. Evergreen charters the ship from a Japanese firm; a Dubai-based company acts as the agent for the ship in ports; and the ship flies the flag of Panama…

“A ship follows the laws of the flag it flies, not that of the ship’s owners or operators. The Panamanian flag is a ‘flag of convenience.’ Flags of convenience, or open registries, have more lax labor and environmental regulations, and lower thresholds for safety and insurance provisions… The fracturing of ownership and operation across different legal jurisdictions and national boundaries also makes it much harder to assign responsibility for accidents.”
Laleh Khalili, Washington Post

“One can perhaps excuse vulnerabilities arising from the natural world, but we should be less accepting of those in the economic sphere over which we have more control… People have warned for years that the U.S. needs a back-up for the Global Positioning System, the satellite-based navigation infrastructure that underpins much of the modern digital economy. The system can be spoofed or otherwise disrupted. It has yet to develop one…

“Semiconductors are where the clearest pinch points are emerging. A global computer chip shortage during Covid has forced auto manufacturers to tear up production plans. The hiatus is temporary, but this belies the real problem: Very few companies are able to produce the most advanced chips, due to the technical challenges and vast cost of constructing foundries…

“Reinforcing supply chains is expensive. But because redundancy offers protection and is therefore a public good, there’s an argument that governments should play a role in providing it.”
Chris Bryant, Bloomberg

From the Right

The Suez Canal is a historic feat of human engineering. For millennia, no viable water route existed between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea. Goods from India and China, which easily made the sea transit to East Africa and Arabia, had to travel over land via the Silk Road — a much slower and more perilous journey for merchants. Ancient kings and emperors attempted to create canals to link the Red and Mediterranean Seas, but each attempt failed…

“Only in 1869 did a French company finally complete the 120-mile Suez Canal, reducing the distance between the Arabian Sea and London by approximately 5,500 miles (or 8 to 10 days)…

“The Suez Canal is a key driver of globalization. The six-day blockage translates into key delays for global commerce — although the long-term effects of this blockage remain unclear. Ultimately, globalization has made human beings across the globe far richer than they would have been otherwise, but this incident reveals that even the global economy is vulnerable to freak accidents.”
Tyler O’Neil, PJ Media

“While the big boat blockage is a neat spectacle, however, it is unlikely to change international trade in the long term. They’re called ‘economies of scale’ because they’re economical, and big shippers have brought about a significant reduction in the cost of shipping. [Historian Marc] Levinson finds that seaborne rates fell by roughly 50 percent in the 1980s alone. If the price of cheap shipping is an occasional canal blockage, so be it.”
Daniel Tenreiro, National Review

“The current blockage apparently arose from adverse weather conditions. But no one should underestimate the geostrategic warning it sends about the potential for political sabotage. As nature inspires art, so too does it inspire malevolence…

“China is creating its own geostrategic choke points, by building naval and air bases on islands, rocks and reefs it claims in the South China Sea, and declaring the region a Chinese province. In the East China Sea, Beijing is threatening Taiwan and challenging Japan on the sovereignty of the islands called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyus in China…

“To mitigate disruption, governments and businesses must diversify their supply chains and methods of shipping, and avoid geographic or political chokepoints, man-made or natural… why shouldn’t American and European companies concentrate more investment and manufacturing in the Western Hemisphere (or at home) rather than in China?”
John Bolton, Bloomberg

A libertarian's take

“Over the past decade, global value chains have had to cope with a slow recovery from the 2008 financial crisis, a follow-on euro-zone crisis, Fukushima, the Arab Spring, Brexit, rising levels of economic and political migration, a wave of populist nationalism stretching from the United States to the Philippines, a Sino-American trade war and a global coronavirus pandemic. Many of these were predicted to be the end of global supply chains, and yet those darn networks keep persisting…

“If commentators want to use the 21st-century Suez crisis as yet another warning about just-in-time manufacturing and the dangers of minimizing inventories, hey, go to town. But that warning has been going out for a while now, and I doubt the Suez traffic jam will be the tipping point that the pandemic or the Sino-American trade war was not. The Ever Given is not a symbol of faltering globalization — if anything, the opposite is true. It serves as a refresher course about the value that globalization still provides to the world economy.”
Daniel W. Drezner, Washington Post

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