US ports were affected this week by protesters
Ports have joined the targets of the “occupy” movement in its diffuse protests against what it sees as corporate greed or, as the slogan says, “Wall Street on the Waterfront”.
Some US ports were affected this week by the protesters’ bid to throw “a wrench into the gears of the 1%”, in a reference to the widely-used statistic on the division of wealth. Some of the 99%, however, who depend on the ports for their livelihoods are unsympathetic as such disruption can affect their income. The ports themselves also point up the benefits they bring in employment to local communities.
American ports are publicly owned, but they host private terminals that the protesters criticise as exploiters of both local and international labour and as polluters of the environment. The main American dockers’ union, whose members on the West Coast in particular, are among the highest-paid blue-collar workers in the US, after earlier expressing solidarity with the campaign against corporate greed, has distanced itself from the protesters’ targeting of ports as well as banks.
The “occupy the ports” actions came as some commentators were drawing attention to a series of disruptions to the global logistic supply chain this year – from strikes and lockouts in ports in other parts of the world to natural disasters in Japan and Thailand and political crises in the Middle East and North Africa. A stuttering world economy, the Eurozone crisis and dire containership and tanker markets have added to the general sense of unease and pessimism.
The targeted container terminals in California that were witnesses during the last decade’s boom and bust to the growing ascendancy of imports from Asia over American exports are seen as critical gateways of trade, and as such are politically sensitive. A dispute between employers and the dockers’ union that lead to a costly lock-out in 2002 was resolved by the intervention of the President.
Whatever the legitimacy of the protesters’ grievances, any threat of disruption to the flow of trade, particularly in the US where increased exports have been welcome economic news, is guaranteed a similarly robust response from any government keen to reduce its trade deficit.
Keeping trade flowing as freely as possible, not just in Californian ports but worldwide, has been seen as a key to the rising prosperity enjoyed by many in the post-war period. Global trade now flows around the world, crossing oceans and transiting canals, with economies of scale enabling the transport of goods and raw materials over vast distances.
The only disruption in peacetime to this flow has been the occasional and localised incident (the Iran-Iraq war, for example), while the threat of terrorists striking at chokepoints like key straits, waterways and canals has so far failed to materialise. The one that not was foreseen was the hijacking of ships in the Indian Ocean and its impact on trade and the associated costs.
That threat from piracy is now acknowledged as one of several facing naval strategy planners. In a paper last year, the head of planning in the operations division at NATO described the world’s seas as a “zone of peace” and a “highway to prosperity” that had existed for more than six decades but warned that the world’s “maritime commons” were facing multiple threats, including piracy, that could if not actually block the highway, then at least reduce it to a few lanes of slow-moving traffic only.
The existence of that zone of peace and its continuing presence have until recently been an automatic assumption among shippers and ship owners alike. This assumption that the peaceful highway will continue to allow global trade to flow and to help it grow year-on-year, of course, sometimes leads some to make wildly over-estimated rates of growth, resulting in corrections, with varying degrees of pain, having to be made.
Yet the NATO planner warned such assumptions may in future be no longer so safely made. “There is mounting evidence that ensuring a steady state of maritime security in the decades ahead as seaborne trade continues to grow will require an expanding commitment of resources and capabilities and ever higher levels of international co-operation”.
He added, “Left unchecked, expanded lawlessness could have a steadily growing adverse impact on seaborne trade and travel, as well as on the reliability of energy supply, leading to an erosion of trade and trust among nations and declining prosperity for all. Ungoverned maritime spaces could become a vast refuge for non-state criminal groups of all sorts, but also, potentially, for nation-states that may sponsor illicit activities, such as terrorism or WMD proliferation.”
Keeping the maritime highway open requires a commitment that is both political and practical in that governments have to do what they say they will by, for example, having as many “hulls in water” as are deemed necessary. Achieving this in times of austerity when sustained levels of defence spending are harder to justify, particularly to the protesting unemployed, becomes a matter of better management of resources.
Maintaining the necessary level of naval capability to meet the threats to the security of the maritime commons is now widely accepted as a challenge. NATO admits there is a real risk that it and the European Union will “lose capabilities” in the cuts to members’ defence budgets. It is looking at greater cost-sharing and co-operation to ensure “every Euro is spent usefully”.
This concept of “co-operative maritime power” has already been put into practice in, for example, the Anglo-French agreement reached last year and is being put through its paces by the multinational anti-piracy naval forces in the Indian Ocean.
Shipping’s long-running argument that those in positions of power were suffering from “sea-blindness” appears finally to have been heard but ironically at a time when the ability to apply the new awareness is restricted by economic necessities.
Protesters and strikers may briefly occupy ports and cause minor disruptions in the global supply chain, but ensuring the maritime commons are kept open may require ship owners to occupy the corridors of power for far longer.
Source: BIMCO, Andrew Guest